In the nearly two decades that I’ve been writing film reviews, I can’t recall another week that saw the release of three movies that are guaranteed to wind up on my year-end Ten Best list. The movies are vampire love story “Thirst” and the documentaries “The Cove,” about an aquatic conservationist’s attempts to stop the slaughter of dolphins, and “Severe Clear,” an autobiographical account of one Marine’s experiences in Iraq. Beyond their dramatic merits, all three demonstrate a front-and-center mastery of technique. They use image and sound not just for the usual, so-called “classical” purposes (to define the characters and advance the story) but to encourage the audience to think about filmmaking’s ability to express states of mind.
The latest provocation from South Korean director Park Chan-Wook (director of the critically divisive “Vengeance” trilogy: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”), “Thirst” is, in no particular order, a horror movie, a sexually explicit tale of doomed love, a kooky romantic comedy, a crime thriller, a social satire about the tension between fringe-dwelling loners and so-called “respectable” people, and possibly a parable of drug addiction and lost faith as well. That it dares attempt so many different modes is impressive; that it reconciles them is astonishing.
Park adapted the film’s script from Émile Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin” — a predecessor to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” about a couple of furtive lovers plotting to kill one’s clueless significant other. Such a melodramatically ripe plot would normally be considered sufficient fuel for a feature. But Park is no ordinary director, and this dense but nimble film is his masterpiece. The protagonist, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), is a Catholic hospital’s chaplain who contracts vampirism through a transfusion and slakes his thirst by secretly drinking blood from sick or dying patients — an act that mysteriously heals those same patients and earns Sang-hyeon a reputation as a one-man Lourdes in a turned-around collar. After he cures cancer in a long-estranged childhood friend named Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), the hero is invited to live with the man’s extended family, which includes a scowling battle-axe of a mother (Kim Hae-sook) and the school chum’s young wife, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin). She’s a meek, nearly mute foundling who’s treated as a domestic slave by the family, and a combination whore and nanny by her goon husband.
It’s a given that the priest and the young wife will learn they’re kindred spirits, but Park builds to the realization with a dazzling sense of play. Sang-hyeon is allergic to sunlight and inclined to wander the city at night for reasons beyond his control. But it turns out that Tae-Joo is a night person, too — not just a sleepwalker, but a sleep-runner who sprints through deserted streets barefoot. There’s a multilayered resonance here: Tae-joo’s sleep-running combines a somnambulist’s psychic restlessness and an abused wife’s longing to run away as fast as her feet will carry her; the eerie unrealness of the night-running scenes, with their echoing sound effects and end-of-the-world panoramic tableaus, suggest that they are a beautiful dream — protected mental spaces in which an enslaved woman can be free. The moment when the characters recognize their kinship (he chases her as she runs away, snatches her by the shoulders, lifts her up with a brusqueness that seems a prelude to murder, then chivalrously lowers her bare feet into his own oversized shoes) has a fairytale charge. Subsequent wuxia-inspired images of the lovers bounding across rooftops push the film’s romantic streak into the realm of pure bliss, like the airborne bike ride in “E.T.” and the night flight through Metropolis in the original “Superman.”
Tae-joo and Sang-hyeon’s sexual encounters are among the hottest, most tender couplings I’ve seen on film. They’re intense but awkward, and more intense because they’re awkward. He’s a priest still clinging to the remnants of his faith, and she’s a psychologically bruised prisoner of a rotten domestic situation. Their circumstances invest their trysts in a storage room of the boarding house with a dirty-pure adolescent power, and give mundane carnal/logistical matters (how to remove undergarments when one has already mounted a partner; how to climax quietly so mom doesn’t hear) an electric charge. (In American movies, characters make love. In Europe and Asia, they fuck.)
But here, too, Park isn’t content to master a particular mode (forbidden romance that leads into a murder plot, with the lovers planning to drown the wife’s husband in a boating “accident”) and be done with it. Tae-joo and Sang-hyeon’s affair goes through so many evolutionary stages (including ones of vampirism), and is so carefully observed by Park and his cast, that it becomes a stand-in for any great love that couldn’t go the distance. There’s a touch of “Annie Hall” in the way that Tae-joo gives herself over to a stalwart mentor figure, then grows beyond him and starts to find him dull and limiting. And there are echoes of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Natural Born Killers” in the lovers’ steadily escalating offenses. Once the bloom is off the rose, they start sniping at each other. The circularity of their mutual resentment is hilarious. She taunts him for skulking around hospital corridors and feeding on corpses and sick people while she’s out there busting her hump to collect “fresh blood”; he chides her for killing mortals because she likes the taste, and for hiding the fact that she’s capable of deception and cruelty; she counters that perhaps he’s not really committed to his lifestyle, and is as much a prisoner of middle-class guilt as the petty relatives she hates and wants to kill.
Park has been making movies just long enough that one can no longer credibly dismiss him as a flavor-of-the-month or a fanboy curiosity. His durability, coupled with the awards he’s been accumulating (including a jury prize for “Thirst” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) may prompt critics who blasted him as a shallow sadist a few years ago to trumpet the arrival of a more sophisticated Park — one who’s genuinely interested in morality and ethics rather than using them as cover for arty visuals and ugly mayhem. But anyone who paid attention to Park’s filmmaking will recognize “Thirst” not as an aberration or evolution, but as the latest installment in a filmography that has always been self-aware, self-critical and sincerely interested in the representation and implications of screen violence. The final leg of “Thirst,” which pushes its lovers past cruelty and bloodlust and into moral exhaustion, then amoral boredom, then toward a too-late awareness of what they’ve lost, is explicitly a morality play. It implicates the viewer in its heroes’ atrocities by encouraging us to share their lust, their flirtatious humor and their conspiratorial, us-against-the-world excitement, then cutting such reveries short by taking us outside their sphere of passion — cutting, for example, to the spastic twitching of one of their victims, or the mother’s accusing stare. (Park often zooms in very tight on Mom’s face so that her eyes fill up the screen: it’s as if she’s sizing us up and passing judgment, shaming us for enjoying ourselves.)