Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores Park Chan-wook’s ‘Thirst’ as a diabolical religious horror film.
It’s October, so as is mandated by the universally accepted movie blog charter this month’s Essentials are going to focus on the horror genre. This week we’re taking a look at a gorgeous, thrilling, and sexy tale of vampirism from South Korea.
Park Chan-wook’s films share a meticulous beauty in the way they show stories rather than simply tell them. His visuals are simultaneously extravagant and precise, and no matter how cold the conflict or extreme the drama playing out before us the sumptuous warmth of the imagery is a constant reminder that we’re watching a very human tale.
From the need for revenge that fuels Lady Vengeance to the coming of age peculiarities of Stoker to the relentless love story of The Handmaiden, Park’s films are interested in pushing basic human motivations to their extremes. 2009’s Thirst is no different in that regard with its focus on a man whose very faith and life-calling are tested in ways Job could only have dreamed of. What happens when a man dedicated to giving to others becomes a creature dependent on taking from them?
Father Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) lives to help others, to give of himself in aid of those less fortunate, and in need of even greater service he heads to Africa and volunteers to face death. He willingly becomes infected with a deadly virus in order to help test an experimental cure, but good intentions aren’t enough leading to his demise from the illness. An emergency blood transfusion in the minutes before death work posthumous wonders though, and soon he returns home a walking, talking miracle. The downtrodden and infirm set up camp outside his hospital hoping to be touched – a wish one woman will certainly regret before the film ends – but he quickly discovers the cost of his resurrection.
Sunlight burns his skin, the thought of consuming food sickens him, and his body develops cravings and desires previously foreign to the priest. The taste for blood is overwhelming, and while it conflicts directly with his core goodness it’s a need he can’t ignore. The initial viral infection that killed him bubbles back to the surface – quite literally as his skin develops sores and ulcers – unless he drinks human blood. He satisfies both his physical and spiritual needs by slurping from IV drips and suicidal patients, but his struggle to remain good in the face of his condition is the drama that propels Park’s film, and it only gets more difficult when an even fleshier urge rises.
Lady Ra (Kim Hae-suk) brings him to lay hands on her cancerous son, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), who quickly recognizes Sang-hyeon as a childhood classmate. He’s a sniveling momma’s boy now, but it’s his wife who captures the priest’s attention. Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) was begrudgingly adopted into the family as a young child only to be groomed by Lady Ra as a wife for Kang-woo. She’s treated poorly by both, and a lifetime of oppression and constant reminders that she lacks value has her ready to crack.
While the first act of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst focused on Sang-hyeon’s struggle and coming to grips with his situation, the second opens up into a love story of sorts. His newfound carnal desires push him into Tae-ju’s arms and lady bits, and his attempts at pummeling his member into submission only increase his compulsion.
Park has never been shy about sex scenes – his latest, The Handmaiden, scissors that point home beautifully – but Thirst captures the libidinous immediacy of these two souls with human need and animal intensity. Song and Kim are absolutely game for Park’s vision, and their coupling mesmerizes for more than just the obvious reasons. The two share a physicality, and as the characters swap various bodily fluids the two connect in increasingly arousing and troubling ways. One minute they’re simultaneously sucking each others phalanges, and the next they’re guzzling each other’s slit wrists. Excited strangulation isn’t far behind.
Tae-ju is drawn to the priest’s sexuality and power, and her discovery that he’s a vampire shocks at first before intriguing her even more. She wants what he has, but Sang-hyeon’s own internal dilemma prevents him from sharing the curse (gift?) at first. His eventual relent empowers Tae-ju with control and joy the likes of which she’s never felt before. The pure glee on her face as he leaps from rooftop to rooftop with her in his arms is contagious, and you want her smile to remain forever. It’s what’s behind the smile that fascinates though.
Song is already an international star, but Kim deserves the same based on her performance here. Sympathetic and devilish, innocent and sexy as hell, she shifts effortlessly as her character grows in new and dangerous directions. We don’t condone her horrific acts – and she is the driving force behind the film’s darkest moments – but watching her character blossom from victim to ridiculously happy victimizer is not without some guilty reward.
One of the film’s many strengths is watching these two deal with their new needs and powers, but the subplot involving Tae-ju’s husband – inspired by Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin – is an equally important element. She convinces Sang-hyeon to kill him with tales of the physical abuse she’s suffered, but once the deed is done she accidentally lets slip that the weaselly prick never laid a violent hand on her. The oppressed girl is revealed as someone far more complicated, and where he tries to subdue his cravings she revels in them.
Their new inhuman nature only heightens the limits of their humanity. The priest feels shame in his monstrous actions, and she’s haunted by guilt in the form of her dead husband’s return. Drowned and weighed down with a rock, we see his soaking wet form humping the air, hanging above her, and laying between the murderous lovers as their copulation grows less personal and more rote. Their affair is doomed by past actions and future intentions, and by the time she remodels the house’s interior all white we suspect the inevitable conflict will paint the walls red. (It does, and fans of Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork will appreciate the result.)
The film’s final minutes see a collision of both the pair’s aggression toward each other and love for each other. “Kill me or save me,” she tells him, “you’ll regret either way.” It leads to a beautiful sequence that manages to capture intent and emotion without dialogue while infusing their situation with black humor and heartbreak. These are flawed people damaged by circumstance who connect on their downward spiral to hell in glorious and sad fashion.
Thirst is a slow burn tragedy, and some of Park’s choices feel odd in the moment – the tent assault still jars – but it engages with beauty, horror, and a pure appreciation for sex that so few American films dare. It’s a messy vampire tale for even messier adults that fucks the likes of Twilight in the glitter hole with a full-fisted grip on tone, emotion, and visceral impact. What happens when a man dedicated to giving to others becomes a creature dependent on taking from them? Nothing good for him, but something tremendously appealing for the rest of us.