‘Thirst’ – Park Chan-wook’s holy vampire on Peacock

Cult director Park Chan-wook, of Oldboy and The Handmaiden fame, takes on the vampire movie with the strange and stylish thriller Thirst (South Korea, 2009).

Song Kang-ho stars as Sang-hyeon, a dedicated Catholic priest who volunteers for a medical experiment at. He just wants to save people but he emerges as a bloodsucker, a classic old school vampire who has to duck sunlight and drink human blood to survive (as the resident priest of a hospital, he finds he can get by with borrowing a little from a comatose patient). He’s a man torn between morality and instinct, faith and desires of the flesh (and blood). He may be damned, by the teachings of own religious beliefs, but vampirism has given him a new passion for life and its visceral pleasures.

For Sang, it’s just another test of his convictions, his bloodlust another desire to resist. He resorts to his own brand of flagellation in response to sexual arousal, beating his thighs as self-punishment (or is it merely his extreme form of a cold shower?). In contrast to his restraint is the feral response of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the miserable, misused wife of a childhood friend and object of Sang’s recharged desire. For Tae-ju, the idea of vampirism is the promise of escape. “I’ve lived like a dog with them my whole life,” she confesses to Sang after discovering his secret. She’s ready to go feral and begs Sang to turn her.

These lovers become the two poles of Thirst: the denial of desire and the embrace of power, the moral balance and the moral absence. It takes death to make Sang want to experience the visceral charge of life he’s denied himself in the priesthood, and desire for Tae-ju drives him to acts he would otherwise find unconscionable, and eventually, inevitably does. Tae-ju, meanwhile, transforms from cowering, repressed victim to hearty predator.

Park hits all the classic vampire themes in a loose, often meandering narrative. In part inspired by Emile Zola’s classic novel “Thérèse Raquin,” it enters The Postman Always Rings Twice territory with an undercurrent of Catholic guilt, holy miracle and supernatural thriller. Park has so many ideas that he tends to move on to the next before he fully explores the first.

But Thirst also has a cheeky sense of humor and understated visual wit. “Did you eat?” someone asks Sang as he watches over the coma patient. “Uh, yeah,” he answers, as his eyes drift over to his dinner. Later he nonchalantly fills up sports bottles from the patient’s drug drip that doubles as Sang’s feeding tube, now a veritable spigot.

Song plays Sang with a reserve that suggests he finds no pleasure in his newfound powers and the charge he gets from his newfound sex life comes with a guilt hangover. Pretty soon the guilt doesn’t even wait until he’s finished, as wickedly witty vision (or are they ghosts?) haunt him while he’s in the midst of passion. Damned if he does and damned if he don’t, he finally accepts that damnation with a calm resignation and embarks on the only path to redemption this holy man can fathom.

Though it’s so overfull with ideas that it tends to get lost them, it’s a fascinating cultural twist and creative variation on the classic European horror.

A couple of years later, Park took another, very different angle on the vampire movie in his English language debut, Stoker.

It won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Rated R, in Korean with English subtitles

Streams for a limited time on Peacock; leaves at the end of October

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Thirst [Blu-ray]
Thirst [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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