Directed by Park Chan wook
I am a big fan of Park Chan wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ – with especial love for Old Boy (2003) – so I was avidly looking forward to seeing his take on the vampirism motif in last year’s film Thirst. I finally got round to seeing this yesterday and I adored it. It’s a very different animal to Old Boy in a lot of ways, though – gentler in places, more developed in others – and I think it’s his most accomplished film so far.
Catholic priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song, The Host, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is a man of faith who, seemingly disillusioned with his everyday duties, volunteers himself to travel abroad for a – most likely fatal – medical experiment to help develop a vaccine for a deadly virus. The medical team there question him closely about his motivations, but he is determined. After being infected with, and later succumbing to, the virus, it looks as though Sang-hyeon has expired.
And then – miraculously – Sang-hyeon beings to breathe again, after receiving a final blood transfusion. His recovery prompts wonder in those around him; when he returns to Korea, he is mobbed by people demanding his prayers for their sick and dying loved ones. One day, as he’s attending a children’s birthday party to offer support to a terminally-ill child, a middle-aged neighbour whom he has known all his life, a Mrs Ra (Hae-Sook Kim) comes and bangs on the windows there. She desperately begs for his help, explaining that her only son is suffering from cancer.
A gentle, perhaps lonely figure, the priest agrees to visit Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and renews his acquaintance with the family. He is particularly drawn to Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) – a woman who was taken in by the family as a girl and seemingly moved from her foster mother’s bed into the son’s bed just in order to have somewhere to live and a means to survive. Tae-ju is an unusual girl, quiet, self-contained, but irredeemably discontent: Sang-hyeon sees her fleeing the house at night to run barefoot through the streets, purely to get away from it all. When he stops her one night – and gives her his shoes to protect her feet – it seems he’s beginning to struggle with the pleasures of the flesh…
…And it’s not only sexuality which is leading him astray. Since receiving the transfusion, Sang-hyeon has developed an aversion to sunlight. And, without consuming human blood – which he covertly enjoys at the hospital where he lives/works – the disfiguring symptoms of the virus which nearly killed him return. Sang-hyeon is now pinioned between his growing love for a vulnerable woman who seems to need him, and his desire not to harm others. Like all good tragedies though, the perils of the flesh will take precedence…
This is a long, intricate film with fully fleshed-out characters whose development throughout is believable and interesting. Sang-hyeon’s wish for martyrdom and his subsequent ‘rebirth’ show him moving through all the emotional states he’s thus far avoided as part of his religious faith. His love for Tae-ju feels earnest and warm, and his lust for her acts as a catalyst, pushing him from one way of life fully into another. Tae-ju herself makes an almost polar character shift, from submissive drudge to villainness, and watching her do so provided me with a gamut of responses – from pity, to distrust, to dislike, and back to pity again. There are certainly sympathetic characters in Park Chan-wook’s earlier films, but I don’t think his storylines had this accomplished level of layering, despite being great movies in themselves.
This is a very carnal film, with a great deal of tenderness in its sex scenes and a sense of two people in love. These intimate, erotic moments find themselves upstaged at times by the nasty and the darkly comic, and the film uses dream/hallucinatory sequences which promote that classic Park-Chan wook attractive strangeness. It is always hard to adequately ‘genre’ his films and this is no exception, bringing as it does such a variety of elements into the mix.
The cinematography of this director’s films forms the lion’s share of their appeal for me and Thirst has a similar aesthetic style; from the opening shot, the predominant colour scheme of this film is blue. Only blood-red really interrupts this, and an array of close shots and carefully-choreographed scenes promotes a tangible atmosphere which overarches the film. This is one of the most artistic ‘horror’ films I’ve seen, and it really does do something different with this theme – here, vampirism is the key which transforms people’s lives in a decidedly non-straightforward way. There are no straighforward responses to vampirism here, as it is a catalyst to changes which are as important in themselves.
This is a long, densely-packed film which never felt it was either, and the ambiguity of the ending (is Mrs Ra going to join them?) together with another conflation of tender and grisly really concluded this beautiful movie in just the right way.