The first vampire film to ever win a prize at Cannes, Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” places the ethical questions of human-community parasitism front and center, as you’d expect from a man whose most famous films are slow-pig-sticking ordeals of retribution and moral poisoning. Park’s resume is also notorious for its merciless pop-movie extremism, and at times (as in the still rather spectacular “Oldboy”) you can’t help noticing a basic conflict between his Chandleresque exploration of life-or-death moral justice and his lurid sensationalism.
Going all genre in “Thirst” has obvious advantages for Park; the built-in conflicts are both familiar and as old as the hills. Still, few vampire narratives outside of, say, John Hayes’ “Grave of the Vampire” (1974) expressly take on the responsibility of the predator to the prey as Park does — his hero (Mr. Korean new wave Song Kang-ho) is an earnest priest who volunteers for an experiment with an Ebola-like virus and appears to die (after puking blood through his flute), except that the transfusion he got mysteriously resurrects him.
That’s where Park gets interesting — Song’s guileless holy man becomes sucked into an idiot boyhood friend’s weird family, which includes a controlling mega-mom and a “sister” (Kim Ok-vin) whom, we learn, was actually adopted as a child and then kept as her drooling “brother”‘s de facto sex toy and wife. In the meanwhile, the non-homicidal priest survives by sucking on the IVs of comatose patients (and, occasionally, pint bags of blood, sipped like a Capri Sun), a situation that changes, slowly and with serious growing pains, when he and Kim’s embittered, used waif align their outsider identities and begin a passionate affair.
There will be blood, and snapped necks, and roof-jumping, and puddles of more blood. Frankly, vampires are such an overworked cultural idea of late (who would’ve thought that they’d survive after 70 years of Lugosis, Hammers, Rollins, Anne Rices, “Lost Boys,” Coppolas and their uncountable ripoffs?) that Park’s first hour smells of boilerplate, guilt issues or no guilt issues. But then the film turns a subtle but savage corner, the narrative slides into the hair-raising dogfight of surreal irony and anxiety we always knew it would, and the image of the two lovers feeding from each others’ slit wrists is only the beginning of the struggle between devotion and predation.
Yes, the parallel to junkiehood is suggested, but not belabored, and I wish that Park hadn’t bought into all of the modern vampire iconography (in particular, the super-strength, another tired trope enabled everywhere by digital effects). But “Thirst” is also vintage Park, insofar as every shot has a wallop to it, and his layered imagery is always surprising. His joke shots turn out painful, and his serious art-film tableaux always have a sardonic gag buried in them; when, early on, Song’s priest suddenly jumps out of a window, Park obviates effects (indulged in later) by simply cutting to a roof perspective, looking down three or more stories at the street where our beleaguered hero lies atop a parked car, trying to pull his head out of the windshield.
Park’s movies have always been psychodrama-intensive marathons for actors, and Song cements his position as the reigning presence on Korean screens in a largely reactive way — his face is naturally structured as if it’s always caught in the middle of a catastrophic quandary (put to good use as well in Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” and “The Host”). But the whirlwind here is Kim, whose twisted, surly, lonesome, power-drunk nowhere girl is an inspired and eye-gripping piece of work, a trod-upon victim of Eastern misogyny transformed into first, a homicidal-minded James M. Cain-style femme, and then a buzzed vampiress exacting her glorious revenge upon the world. The genre stuff is decidedly secondary to the characters’ agonizing evolutions, and their ordeals are suffered not so much for the sake of blood, but for love.