“Thirst,” Park Chan-wook’s plague-vampire-priest-black-comedy-gothic-family-drama-noir, has enough going on for at least an entire other movie, if not two. Its developments are impossible to predict, but that’s because half are unnecessary — by the time clergyman-turned-secular-bloodsucker Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and his lover Tae-joo (Kim Ok-bin) are hiding a body in the closet before hosting their weekly mahjong game, I could barely remember how everything started (Sang-hyun volunteers to be part of an experiment to cure a virus killing celibate male missionaries in Africa, and is unknowingly given a transfusion of vampire plasma that staves off the sickness). The disinterest in the wherefore of Sang-hyun’s vampirism is played for laughs — he’s more troubled by the ethical dilemmas of drinking blood, which he rationalizes his way around by claiming one comatose victim had been dedicated in consciousness to feeding the hungry, and by planning on preying upon already suicidal targets he’ll find by taking confession and on the internet. It doesn’t make for a particularly effective vampire movie, though it’s one in which only some of the usual rules apply: no fangs or bats (though “Bat” is the literal translation of the Korean title), but sunlight is deadly and strength superhuman.
Despite initially setting up a conflict between faith and physically mandated murder, “Thirst”‘s major contention becomes one between Sang-hyun and Tae-joo, who’s been the punching bag/slave of the woman who raised her when her parents abandoned her as a child, and who was married off to the woman’s cherished, sickly son as soon as she was of age. Tae-joo is irresistible to the newly awakened Sang-hyun, and she sees in him an escape from the life to which she’s been chained. Victims in Park Chan-wook’s films often prove themselves to be just as ruthless as their oppressors when given the power, and as a vampire, Tae-joo has no problems killing anyone she feels like snacking on. The ramp up to Grand Guignol is a steep one, and “Thirst” becomes just a stylish shriek in its final third. Stylish, at least, is something Park has always done well. Coherence and emotional appeal, less so.