Film Review: Thirst

A cinematic maelstrom of bloodlust and sensual obsession projected through Park Chan-wook's runaway imagination.

Korean auteur extraordinaire Park Chan-wook's Thirst is a torrid expression of predatory instinct and insatiable, all-consuming love, embodied through its protagonist's difficulty in holding his day job as a priest-cum-miracle-healer, and his night shift as an accidental vampire and fornicating murderer.

Released domestically two weeks ahead of its Cannes Competition premiere, Thirst instantly became the year's national box-office champion in Korea. A co-investment and co-production between CJ Entertainment and Universal Pictures (touted as a first-of-its-kind Korean-Hollywood collaboration), it will be released stateside by Focus Features. Stunning production quality and the story's extremity should arouse interest beyond the specialty Asian market.

Park takes his famed eroticization of violence, pain and cruelty to new, feverish heights, and garnishes it with deliciously sadistic gallows humor. Those who thrive on gore, twisted sexuality and brutish handling of women can drink their fill from this film. More serious art-house critics, however, may balk at the script's soapy excesses, as well as the tonal discordance of yoking the horror-fantasy genre to a love tragedy with classical, literary trappings.

Korea's supreme actor Song Kang-ho turns in another forceful yet controlled performance as Sang Hyun, a provincial priest who volunteers to undergo an experiment in Africa to find a cure for a deadly virus. He survives, but becomes a vampire through an unknown blood transfusion. Unlike conventional vampires who only crave blood, Sang Hyun discovers that he "thirsts after all sinful pleasures." He develops a flair for mahjong, justifies his way of obtaining blood supplies, and covets his childhood classmate, Kang-woo's wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin).

Layered with satire on religious and social hypocrisy, Sang Hyun's conflict between repression and impulse (memorably represented by his thwacking his groin with a recorder) constitutes the film's most amusing and penetrating moments. However, once Tae-ju conspires with him to murder Kang-woo in what Park professed is a re-envisioning of Zola's Therese Racquin, the characters swing wildly between gleeful amorality and extreme tormented conscience. The atmosphere is that of macabre farce rather than the novel's haunting psychological depth.

Kim Ok-vin's high-pitched neurosis is sometimes grating, but for a relative newcomer, she keeps her continuous personality transformations in stride, even when she finally becomes a dehumanized hunter driven only by instinct.

Like all of Park's films, cinematic technique is highly distinctive in Thirst, though art direction is more naturalistic than in his last three films. In the final reels, a blue-against-white color scheme begins to dominate, providing a striking contrast to the lurid bloodletting.