Film >Interludes with the vampire
“It’s strange, but good,” Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) mutters in the throes of sex with Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho). See, she’s not used to the nibbling part, and he, being a Catholic priest and all, is a bit too taken with the whole act of consummation to know any better. In all fairness, he’s not that experienced in the ways of vampirism either.
After tackling the moral quandaries of violence with his epic, lyrical “Vengeance Trilogy” (including his most famous work, Oldboy) and giving dysfunctional romance a go in the significantly lighter I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, director Park Chan-wook fuses the two and then some in Thirst, a film that begins as a film about a crisis of faith and ends up with a crisis of identity itself.
Sang-hyeon tries to ease the suffering of those in his hospital, but last rites and confessional advice can only help so much. In a last-ditch effort to be of some worth to his God, our friar volunteers to test a vaccine for one nasty little virus that’s going around, and before he knows it, he’s breaking out in blisters and coughing up blood before ultimately dying … for a while.
He soon comes back to life, resurrected with a renewed knack for healing himself and an aversion to sunlight. A lesser film would try to explain the source of his peculiar blood transfusion, but all that matters is that Sang-hyeon’s earthly virus is now kept in check by a far different disease, and his only way to salvation is succumbing to temptation.
At this point, when Sang-hyeon is contemplating the nonlethal means of satisfying his new diet and the overall ramifications of being damned to health yet unable to heal others without damning them as well, Song proves to be as endearingly stoic as he was endearingly stupid in The Host. Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-Gyeong are similarly on the ball in this first section – until Tae-joo, a childhood friend stuck somewhere between arranged marriage and indentured servitude, comes around; Kim plays her with suffering and sensuality unmatched by the rest of the cast.
As the ethical dilemmas give way to romantic ones – he’s curing her loneliness; she sees herself as helping the needy (read: the celibate) – cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon lingers and looms with consistent and considerable grace, letting scenes of passion and pain speak more than the dialogue. The overall sense of tragedy, however, begins to wane as the tone mutates from moments conflicted and melancholy to those darkly comedic and ultimately melodramatic, and the story goes from unpredictable to ungainly.
Park isn’t slavish to vampire lore, we’ll give him that, but sympathy for Mr. Vampire Priest can only last so long before Thirst runs out of juice. It’s strange, yes, and good, yes, but in the end, not good enough.