by Mel Valentin
Whatever the medium, literature, film, and television vampires have consistently captivated Western and non-Western audiences. Over the last century, writers and filmmakers have explored every facet of the vampire mythos through aristocratic vampires ("Dracula," "Nosferatu," and countless imitators), redneck vampires ("Near Dark"), teen vampires ("Lost Boys"), tortured vampires ("Interview With a Vampire"), soulful vampires ("True Blood," "Twilight," "Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), even science-based vampires ("Ultraviolet") on film and television, but what we haven’t seen yet is a Catholic vampire-priest. Until now, that is, with Chan-wook Park’s ("Lady Vengeance," "Oldboy," "No Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance") latest film, "Thirst" (“Bakjwi”), awarded the Jury Prize this past May at the Cannes Film Festival.As unconventional and surprising as Park’s previous films, Thirst follows Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song), a devoted Catholic priest who tends to the sick and dying in a Korean hospital. Convinced that offering spiritual guidance to the hospital’s terminal patients isn’t enough, Sang-hyeon volunteers as a test subject for an experimental, potentially toxic drug created to combat a new deadly disease. Although most volunteers die, but Sang-hyeon survives the grueling after-effects, his body permanently covered with pustules. Sang-hyeon returns to the hospital to tend to the sick and dying, his face and hands hidden under bandages. Sang-hyeon finds a temporary cure for the disease, human blood, but suffers from the potentially deadly aversion to sunlight (but no aversion to crosses or crucifixes). As a priest bound to a strict code, Sang-hyeon refuses to kill to survive, but instead depends on a burly, comatose patient for sustenance.
"Or "The Vampire Always Rings Twice."
Sang-hyeon’s other urges, however, prove more difficult to control. When he’s called to the bedside of a childhood friend suffering from leukemia, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), Sang-hyeon also renews contact with Tae-joo (Ok-vin Kim), Kang-woo’s wife and another childhood friend. Kang-woo’s mother, Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim), treats Tae-joo more like a servant than a daughter-in-law. Overcome with temptation, Sang-hyeon begins an illicit affair with Tae-joo. What Sang-hyeon gets, however, isn’t a happily ever after. Instead, Sang-hyeon (and the audience) steps into the equivalent of The Postman Always Rings Twice and An American Tragedy. Sang-hyeon can save Tae-joo from her deeply unhappy marriage, but in saving Tae-joo, Sang-hyeon risks exposing his secret life as a vampire and, worse, losing his soul.
Despite the presumably controversy-baiting of Sang-hyeon’s status as a Catholic priest, Park leaves the digs at the Catholic Church outside the church door. Sang-hyeon’s vampirism is treated as a moral problem to overcome, which he does successfully. It’s the by-product of vampirism, a heightened libido that proves to be more problematic for Sang-hyeon and ultimately leads to a potentially disastrous decision: converting the deeply scarred Tae-joo into his vampire mate. Park does, however, take tangential aim at the easily befuddled, at non-reflective worshippers who see Sang-hyeon’s recovery as the manifestation of God’s will in the material realm (it’s not). Park’s depiction of another priest, Noh (In-hwan Park), Sang-hyeon’s blind, wheelchair-bound mentor, is less than charitable. Despite his (apparent) faith in an afterlife, Noh is tempted by the immortality vampirism promises."Thirst" is nothing if not bloody and, on occasion, gory, but again, that’s par for the course where Park is involved. Park’s strengths as a filmmaker lie in his uncompromising attitude toward the depiction of violence and its complex, contradictory consequences, a baroque visual style, and a dark sense of humor. All three are present in "Thirst," but the performances in Park’s films tend to get underplayed in reviews or commentary. Park is just as masterful in coaxing a wide range of behaviors and attitudes from his performers and "Thirst" is no different. Both Kang-ho Song and Ok-vin Kim give vibrant, layered performances as the (potentially) doomed lovers. They make the respective plights of their characters all the more emotionally resonant, especially as the final scene plays out as tragicomedy.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18825&reviewer=402
originally posted: 07/31/09 19:11:07