“Together in hell, then,” as the vampire priest says. He could be summarising Chan-wook Park’s movies; where protagonists are tortured thoroughly by someone who knows how. Sex, violence, deviance, and a roving camera: that’s Park. Only, there’s nothing cynical about his approach. He’s allergic to cliché. He’d make blood look white if he could. His vampire story contains no fangs, no bats, no crosses…no first bite (the curse is transfused). The Thirst of the title is as much a thirst for death as a thirst for blood. Where others look to vampires for night life, Park sees them the way he sees all blood-letters: as people steeped in their own demise.
A Catholic priest becomes a vampire. He’d planned to die. As a volunteer for a risky vaccination trial, he’d meant to give his life to save others. Instead, he gets eternal life…on Earth. Plus everything else that comes with being a vampire. Suddenly, he wants sex – with the wife of an old school friend, no less. She’s amenable to his advances. But she wants to be a vampire too. And she hates her husband. So now she asks the priest to do murder. And he does. Why not? In his mind, he’s going to hell for having sex anyway. But in a world of vampires; there are ghosts too (or, at least, persistent hallucinations). Love doesn’t mitigate damnation.
Picture a woman running barefoot down a deserted street. A priest stops her and slots her into his shoes. That’s the sort of scene that makes Thirst different from Twilight. The movie ends with those shoes – those worn soles – anointed with sunlight. Everything in-between is not what you expect. Chan-wook Park’s style is to leave out all the scenes that bore him. So the priest knows immediately that he’s become a vampire (because it’s dull waiting for him to work it out). Gaps in logic are more than compensated for by the visuals. Park (like Brian De Palma) wants to do the impossible with his camera. His starting point for any scene is: what haven’t I seen before? Just look at the two vampires pacing around a bright white house. Darkness would have been predictable.
As the Catholic priest, Kang-ho Song looks suitably meek, before he discovers sex. He isn’t a priest for long (on-screen) before he’s a vampire, but he convinces as someone who wants to do God’s work. The movie doesn’t allow him time for moral anguish, because he’s too busy stopping his lover from killing half the town. He makes peace with his mortal sins early on (the sex is that great), and, after that, he doesn’t seem to spare a thought for Jesus. Song looks, perhaps, a little too comfortable breaking his vow of chastity. But you don’t doubt he can stomach death by the time he’s drowned a man (and had sex, with a ghost trying to interpose).
Any girl who seduces a priest is going to be interesting. Ok-bin Kim is interesting even before that. It’s the way she cocks her head when she looks at people…the way she practises stabbing her husband while he sleeps. She has a manic smile, like someone sure their happiness will turn nasty. By the time she’s throttling the life out of her brother-in-law, you figure nature has taken its course. Her many sex scenes are entirely gratuitous in terms of female nudity, but Kim is watch-able whether her shirt’s on or off. She comes alive when she’s a vampire. Few women could hold a machete so coquettishly. Or commit bloody mayhem with such zeal.
I suppose, as a Catholic, I should be outraged. But Chan-wook Park wins me over – despite his flagrant blasphemy – because his movie is religiously devoted to life. Where most horror movies find it enough to shove blood in your face and hope you’ll squeal; Park invests hugely in the people he’s chopping up. They have souls. And though he knows as much about modesty than he does about theology (i.e. nothing), he gets one thing right about faith: it’s not prudish. We’re so used to movie-priests shying from life that we forget these guys see death all the time. Thirst is – a little – about kinky sex. But it knows that priests (like vampires) know humanity.