A hot name in new Korean cinema ever since the release of his acclaimed, ultra-violent 'vengeance trilogy' of movies ("Sympathy for Mr Vengeance", "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance"), Park Chan-wook's heady brand of offbeat noirish surrealism now turns to the voguish vampire mythos for its latest expression. The film may well be the result of a groundbreaking co-production deal between the U.S. and South Korea but the director's signature style — his uncanny knack for arranging surprising tableaux, with images that seem somehow both simultaneously disturbing and comical, is as rampant here as it ever was; you can safely leave all preconceptions about what a vampire movie is supposed to look like at the door before you settle down to this one: Park's elegant but often unwieldy literary/fantasy hybrid moves restlessly thorough a constantly shifting post modern genre landscape that takes in everything from high-blown fantasy, religious allegory, comic horror and quirky surrealist melodrama over the course of its crammed two hours and thirteen minutes; Park still finding room to include inventive ways to mangle the human body — from a simple fish hook ripping through an ear lobe, to a priest haemorrhaging squelchy globules of blood through the finger-holes of his wooden flute.
The main story is based closely on that of Emile Zola's 1867 novel "Therese Raquin", with the events of the original plot now occurring in the midst of a plague-ravaged world where there is also the added complication that vampirism is a constant risk. Sang-hyeun (Song Kang-ho) is a troubled young Catholic priest with a martyr complex, who, having come to the conclusion that practical help would ultimately do more good in the world than the comfort and prayers he attempts to offer in the hospitals where he ministers to the comatose victims of the disfiguring, leprosy-causing virus currently laying waste to the land, agrees to take part in a highly dangerous medical trial that will involve him being voluntarily infected with this so-called EV Virus.
Soon after the virus appears to do its lethal work on him in an extremely gory fashion, Sang-hyeun is revived with a special blood transfusion, and immediately discovers he has been unexpectedly blessed with incredible healing powers. Upon leaving the research facility, swathed from head-to-toe in bandages, he is surrounded by Believers and the terminally sick, who now flock to him hoping to be cured. The doubting Sang-hyeun now finds himself in the unlikely position of having been made into a symbol of faith through the power of medical science. But that is the least of his problems. Accompanying these miraculous healing powers is an insatiable desire for blood and an aversion to sunlight (hence the bandages), along with an equally powerful compulsion to partake of all human sins, mainly meaning, of course, those of the flesh. Not good when your vocation is to that of the priesthood!
This opening section of the movie plays like a stylish science fiction tale with a special emphasis on Cronenberg-style body transformation motifs specifically referenced alongside the idea of the Christian sacraments. A big enough heap of conceptual baggage to keep most movies going for their full running time, but in Park Chan-wook's dark, mercurial cinema it turns out to be just the kick-off point for an ever weirder series of narrative transformations.
The middle section is where Zola's novel becomes the primary focus of the shifting story. During his ministrations, Sang-hyeun is reunited with childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) after he's presented to the priest by his over attentive mother suffering from terminal cancer. Once having cured the young man, the solitary Sang-hyeun starts to get close to the family again, eventually agreeing to move in with Kang-woo and his matriarchal mother, Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook). Also living with them is the beautiful Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin): taken in as an orphaned child by Lady Ra, she is virtually now a dishwashing dogsbody for the family, and was even forced to marry the insipid Kang-woo, who — even though cured of his cancer — continues to live the life of a pampered invalid. Sang-hyeun attempts to reconcile his need for blood with his vocation as a priest by resolving to only take the red stuff when it is freely offered to him, either by his elderly mentor (Park In-hwan) or by thankful recipients of his healing gifts. He's not above siphoning off a little from one of the hospitalised coma victims as well, reassuring himself that the impromptu donor was of an altruistic bent and would have offered it any way if he could have!
But events take a drastic turn for the worse when the priest's uncontrollable lust mires him in an intense but secret sexual relationship with the young wife of his former friend. Eventually, his unquenchable desire and all-encompassing love for her leads him into agreeing to murder Kang-woo, drowning him in a lake and pinning the body down underwater with a boulder after convincing himself that the husband has been violently treating Tae-ju. But kang-woo's restless spirit will not stay buried — appearing to the couple constantly and taunting them with his ugly presence.
At this point in the narrative we are still only halfway through the film; yet, really, "Thirst" hasn't come anywhere near finishing with it's sudden transformations. Eventually, Sang-hyeun's newly unleashed and insatiable sexual lust leads him to vampirise Tae-ju, resulting in the film's bloody domestic comic horror segment — with the two vampires now living together in a stark white apartment festooned with fluorescent lights, alongside Tae-ju's now paralysed stepmother: the only person who actually knows that the priest has murdered Kang-woo! A night in with some of the couple's friends leads to a horrific bloodbath and a showdown between Sang-hyeun and Tae-ju when they start to develop very different attitudes to their responsibilities as vampires.
"Thirst" is such a rich piece of work that it is very difficult if not completely impossible to take it all in on just one viewing; every frame looks like it has been meticulously composed and coloured to be hung on a wall as though it were a painting. Ryu Seong-hie's production design is so incredibly detailed one often actually feels like freezing the disc in order to study individual frames of it that much more closely — a desire the clarity of image on Blu-ray only exacerbates. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon oversees a diverse mis en scene that references everything from the Universal Horror of James Whale (Sang-hyeun in his bandaged form seems like a direct homage to the 1933 version of "The Invisible Man") to the stylish enervated gloss of Tony Scott's "The Hunger". Park's imagery is dense and surrealistic with a quirkiness that often gives way to the horrific. But the constantly evolving narrative often leaves the film feeling like several different stories crammed together, perhaps dissipating the immediate effect of the piece as one is constantly having one's attentions pulled in multiple directions at once — the elaborate and provocative symbolism of the imagery almost competing against the multiple narrative strands, which in turn only seem loosely to hang together, ghost story and vampire elements never really meshing with each other or with the more poetic symbolic style. In particular, the Tae-ju character appears to go through so many alterations over the course of the film that it feels like newcomer Kim Ok-bin is playing several entirely different people. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Park Chan-wook has created a stunningly dark and beautiful piece of work here; a poetic film that is likely only to grow in influence and stature with repeat viewings. "Thirst" further endorses Park's growing reputation as a meticulous craftsman of the macabre, combining wayward anarchic extravagance with exquisite and lushly rendered attention to detail.
Palisades Tartan have released "Thirst" in both DVD and Blu-ray versions, but it has to be said (as if it needed to be) that the Blu-ray is definitely the way to go. The transfer looks largely magnificent, the detail utterly incredible at some points. The film has a number of extended sequences that take place in murky twilight and that would give any format a few difficulties, but this transfer manages it without any serious problems. The 5.1 DTS audio track showcases the film's excellent sound design to brilliant effect with the copious slurping and sucking noises in the blood drinking sequences given free rein on the soundtrack. The extras are scant but worthwhile: an interview which runs for about 14 minutes and an edited segment of highlights from an NFT Masterclass (also about 14 minutes), discussing Park's methods for dealing with actors and his attitudes towards women and the violence meted out to them in his work, among other subjects. FInally, the trailer is also included.
Perhaps there is cause for a little disappointment that there isn't much else included extras wise, but the highlight is the film's High Definition transfer and audio which definitely adds incalculably to the overall experience.