It may be unfair to continually expect Park Chan-wook to deliver a new movie as thrilling as his critically acclaimed 2004 film Oldboy. But although Thirst, joint winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, lacks its predecessor’s shocking originality, Park’s formidable talents still result in a flawed but entertainingly perverse love story, one that’s also a thriller, a horror film and a black comedy.
Song Kang-ho, star of the hugely successful film The Host, plays Sang-hyun, a priest who is utterly devoted to his flock, so much so that he volunteers for a medical experiment to find a cure for a mysterious but lethal virus. When the trial fails, his life is saved by a blood transfusion that not only miraculously brings him back to life, but also turns him into a vampire - a discovery he makes only gradually, when his skin starts to sizzle in direct sunlight, and ugly, seething boils appear all over his body unless he slakes his thirst for blood. But still the compassionate priest, he is unwilling to let himself be consumed by this new bloodlust and has to find ways of satisfying his needs without harming people.
Things change when, in a plot twist inspired by Emile Zola’s Thérí¨se Raquin, he meets an old friend in hospital, who is now a pathetic, sniffling hypochondriac married to Tae-ju (played by the model-turned-actress Kim Ok-vin). She’s a young, beautiful woman who was taken in by his mother (an imposing, mah jong-playing matriarch) after the death of her parents, and later forced into the unhappy marriage. But Tae-ju’s air of vulnerability - she begs the priest for help in escaping her miserable life - masks a manipulative and strong-minded streak that’s only exposed after she and Sang-hyun become lovers.
The moral dilemmas involving carnal lust and chastity, religious guilt and Sang-hyun’s need for survival are undoubtedly intriguing (and are similar to the themes that course through much of Park’s work), and yet, the heady mix of blood and guts, sex, murder, the supernatural and the Catholic church never quite works as a coherent whole. The film undeniably has some brilliant, darkly comic moments, but it often feels like Park has tried to cram too much into Thirst, without ever really adding anything new to the vampire genre. His continuing collaboration with the cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon means that the film looks terrific, but elements of the plot are clumsily handled while the pacing is often erratic over the 133-minute running time (several scenes, including much of the opening, could have been left on the cutting room floor). In some ways, Park Chan-wook seems to have overindulged his fantastic imagination and creative ambition at the expense of tightness and cohesion. But if the result is slightly disappointing, it’s only because Park has already set the bar extraordinarily high.