Acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook sinks his teeth into vampire lore with his gritty and captivating new film, “Thirst,” which Focus Features released on DVD Nov. 17.
Park, who shot to international recognition with his “Vengeance Trilogy” that meditated on the need for vengeance in various forms, culminating in the frenetic and disturbing “Old Boy,” writes and directs this tale of a priest named Sang-hyeon who selflessly volunteers himself for a vaccination development project for a deadly virus.
When the procedures go wrong and the priest needs a blood transfusion, he finds himself the recipient of vampire blood. The priest suddenly starts questioning his moral life as he’s drawn into violent and sexual chaos, including having an affair with his friend’s wife and murdering others to satisfy his blood lust.
This is not a glamorous or necessarily pleasure-filled vampire tale. Sang-hyeon is a tortured and confused soul trying to negotiate the widening rift between his pre-existing morality and his newfound, overwhelming impulses. Actor Kang-ho Song plays him with an appropriate amount of variety, knowing when to send the performance over the edge for added effect.
Park’s previous films have all relied heavily on superfluous bouts of heavily orchestrated violence to both disturb and exhilarate, and “Thirst” is no exception. When Sang-hyeon and his lover (played relentlessly over-the-top by Ok-vin Kim) make the decision to murder, blood shoots and pours from veins and their drive for fleeting satisfaction pushes the film into campy territory.
The film is directed with plenty of dread and terror, with a sharp eye for integrating elements of classic vampire lore, but Park’s real skill is how he melds this with dark comedy, playing on a wide array of emotions while his film slowly crawls through its characters’ personal hell.
There is also plenty of visual invention to admire in the film. The cinematography creates striking contrasts between pale whites and pitch blacks, wedging gruesome gore somewhere in between.
Director Park fully understands how to create perfect compositions, and each scene slowly builds with deliberate editing. Many scenes accent a wealth of empty space in rooms and open areas, while others take advantage of claustrophobia and sensuality in how close the camera gets to bodies.
Though the film pushes over two hours, each moment is treated as absolutely essential, making every element of its aesthetic feel synchronized for maximum effect.
At a moment where the “Twilight Saga” seems to be trying to reshape how vampires can be imagined, “Thirst” provides an agonizing and humanizing look at two souls’ spiral into carnal sin.
The film’s religious overtones serve as both commentary and parody, constantly questioning the lines society draws around moral codes while almost never eliciting full sympathy for the deranged protagonists.
Vampirism is treated as a drug, and its victims as addicts, wherein they slowly lose all sense of themselves to the prison they erect for their bloody dinners. In its multiple approaches and wealth of subtexts to the singular subject matter, “Thirst” is an undeniably complex and invigorating film.
It is captivating horror filmmaking with a hefty sense of social commentary on its underbelly, gorgeously made from one of international cinema’s most recognizable and stand-out talents.