One of South Korea’s most creative and fearless filmmakers, Park Chan-wook has made a celebrated career out of offering deep, complex genre films ever since he exploded on the international market with the ‘Vengeance trilogy’ of films in the early 2000s. Continuing his use of dark themes and bold, striking cinematography in this vampire tale, his turn to supernatural-themed works isn’t diminished in the slightest in this stellar effort.
In Korea, the dedicated Priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho, from “Oldboy”) volunteers for special research on the Emmanuel Virus, a strange virus that does not affect Africans, only Caucasians and Asians. However, he contracts the disease and dies, but after a blood transfusion, he surprisingly survives among the fifty volunteers and is considered a saint by the worshipers. Soon, Sang-hyun finds that the transfusion was made using vampire blood, that he is thirsty for blood but still tries to find a way to get the necessary blood without killing innocent people. When he sees Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin, from “The Villainess”) that he met when he was a teenager, Sang-hyun learns that the young woman is abused by her husband Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun, from “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”) and stepmother Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook, from “The Handmaiden”) and the two of them plot to get rid of Kang-woo. When she’s turned into a vampire, the bloodletting spree she unleashes, forces him to an ultimate decision.
There was quite a lot to like with the film. Among it’s best qualities is the highly original and unique bent it provides to a vampire’s origins. This is quite creative, offering the transformation through the experiment. The additional measure of being a priest and being placed through the experiment takes on a truly enjoyable religious aspect here, realizing that the consequences have turned him into such a creature. When we see the outcome of this as a form of worship, due to the nature of the Priest’s situation surviving as he does, there’s a far greater understanding of what happened to him in order to become such a creature and the conflict that arises within him knowing what he is, becomes all the more interesting. The desire to help people, especially working in a hospital for the dead and dying, begins to conflict greatly with the urge towards blood-drinking that he encounters due to being around others in that condition.
When he decides to drop those pretences and allow his true nature to come out, which is when he starts to have the affair with Tae-ju, the pace becomes a lot more enjoyable with the action picking up. Since the virus has still not completely healed and causes him to revert to his deformed state, these scenes of him failing to keep everything from her and causing the seduction of the lifestyle are quite meaningful. These scenes of Sang-hyun demonstrating his powers to Tae-ju, such as the healing of his skin side-effects, his strength and agility, visibly aroused her due to how exciting and different he is, compared to her current living situation. That contrast is exceptionally well-recognized once the seduction is complete and she turns into a ravenous vampire. This aspect becomes rather fun with the traditional manner in which these activities are focused on and keep the film moving along with a lot more going on than usually suspected.
That becomes far more impactful once you see the contrast between them in the latter half. With Sang-hyun far more concerned with keeping a low profile for his activities and Tae-ju interested in the power she has, this section creates an interesting dichotomy between them. With the film’s best sequence overall as Tae-ju snaps and goes on a massive killing spree against their friends and featuring plenty of bloody, brutal action in the bloodletting and eventual blood-drinking that occurs in the aftermath, it comes across as the most horror-based element at that point and scores really well thanks to Baek Sang-hoon’s special make-up effects. Their relationship at that point reaches a breaking point and exemplifies beautifully in a poignant, touching finale that is exceptionally moving as the two vampires meet their fate together. These elements are what really hold this one up.
For all it’s positives, there are a few flaws here. The main issue is the overall excessive length, running on far too long for its own good. Director Wook-park creates a wholly lethargic pace that runs quite a while before we realize what’s going on, since this becomes far more concerned with the visual aesthetic than getting the storytelling spell itself out. We have a bland setup throughout the first half with a detailed step-by-step breakdown of his journey at the institute getting the disease and his eventual recovery there. That leads to those around him being drawn into a saint-like worshipping cult begging for him to perform miracles on them or their loved ones would’ve been a fine angle to play up more instead of staying in focus on the drama between him and the family. Overall, these here are what hold this one back somewhat.
Despite a few minor hiccups in place, ‘Thirst’ comes through wonderfully with a strong creative aspect and some fine emotional resonance to make for a captivating entry from one of the finest in the genre. Wholly dive into this effort if you’re a vampire genre fan or someone interested based on the creative units involved, while those put off by its negatives are missing out on the positive aspects.