Kinky, strangely moving, and deliriously bonkers, Thirst is a gaudy, operatic, and rollocking provocation of a melodrama; a frank, fanged fusion of Dracula and Double Indemnity; and a daring patchwork-quilt of a movie unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s one of the most deliciously skewed incisions into the vampire romance subgenre, and the spring’s most lip-smacking treat.
At this point, a vampire story doesn’t border on cliché: it’s basically the definition of it. Of course, this one is in Korean, its hero is a Catholic priest, and it comes with a heavy dose of religion and bizarre slapstick involving a leering, drowned ghost. It also arrives courtesy of Cannes Jury Prize-winning writer-director Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).
When Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song) volunteers to participate in an experiment to find a vaccine for the deadly Emmanuel Virus, he’s accidentally infected, but makes a rapid and complete recovery after receiving a curious blood transfusion. Days later, Sang-hyun has a relapse and wakes in dire need of shelter from the sunlight, having become a vampire. He soon begins an affair with Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim). As Sang-hyun’s ethics slacken from “do not” to “do not kill” to “do not kill the undeserving,” the lure of those O+ cocktails causes blood to spurt, to stream, and finally to cascade in rivers.
From the sweltering sex to the scandalous suckings and slayings, Tae-ju’s angrily orchestrated mayhem rhymes perfectly with Park’s voracious style. It’s difficult to think of another director – Hitchcock? Kurosawa? Polanski? – who’s been so widely embraced by the global art-cinema scene and by genre buffs. For its part, Thirst, the most deranged adaptation of an Émile Zola novel to reach the screen, becomes a crackpot medley of different stories addressing a set of basic human questions about love, sex, violence, guilt, and salvation that have preoccupied Park throughout his career.
A hysterical and extreme pitch-black comedy, Thirst rips open its bodice with arterial sprays of carnage and carnality, and provides a heady fix of lurid visuals and baroque plotting. With its rapacious appetite and forceful directing style, its most dazzling scenes recall Cronenberg’s The Fly and Crash. This is juicy filmmaking: cathartic, psychologically rich, visually engaging, free of vampire-movie banality. It’s a graphic and twisted production of sensational confidence, brimming with crisp coolness and unsettling imagery while unleashing torrents of blood-letting. And if you look for serious intellectual heft and splashes of irony among those gushing red spills, you’ll find it.
Alongside its ritzy barbarism and brilliant invention, Thirst is boldly erotic. Its narrative wildness, ripe sensuality, and full-throated romance make it a passionate and painful human love story, one of the best of the year. It also contains some of the slurpiest – and most fearlessly eccentric – sex scenes to be found in any recent R-rated movie. After all, movies exist to cloak our desires in disguises we can accept.
Thirst is overlong, drags in places, and can’t always manage its unstable balance of horror, romance, and comedy, too often choosing sensation over coherence. Yet if it lacks the momentum of Oldboy, its turgid pace produces a queasy fascination, drawing viewers into a dimming locus of sin and obsession, where the wish for redemption comes at a terrible cost. More importantly, Park is exceptional, capable of being weirdly funny, quirkily fantastical, and brutally sexy, and his gallows wit and visual inventiveness keep us alert.
Wildly gruesome and audaciously entertaining, Thirst is a grim antidote to the sanitized young things of Twilight and True Blood, a genre-bending – if not genre-destroying – foray into a myth we all know too well. Biting on the heels of Let the Right One In, Park’s fervid extravaganza is another vampire film for grown-ups, with plenty to sink your teeth into. The evolution from somber spiritual torment to body horror to fetishistic sex to savage lyricism to Grand Guignol splatter is exhilarating. You just have to have the stomach for it.