If you’ve seen past Park Chan-wook films, you'll spend much of Thirst waiting for that moment when something so horribly graphic takes place on the screen that the guy sitting next to you pees his pants a little. You know it’s coming because these scenes have become something of a Park signature, and Thirst will be loved and hated because of this excruciating moment. While critics and cynics deride Park’s fascination with violence and vengeance, fans praise the beauty and intelligence with which he tackles these subjects. Know this going in: It’s gruesome and it’s gorgeous. But it’s damn gruesome.
Thirst also carries other Park signatures: along with the aforementioned nauseating violence, there is beautiful cinematography, a lush color palette, a slightly detached male lead, and an over-exuberant female lead. Yet, while Thirst may have much in common with Park’s "Vengeance Trilogy" -- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005) -- it also steps in a new direction. Outside of the scenes in which characters chop off limbs or vomit blood, the film manages to develop into a more compelling drama and love story than any of Park’s previous work.
The film follows Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a priest determined to make a positive impact in the world. He becomes a test subject for a vaccination against a fierce, rapidly spreading disease. When the cure doesn’t work and he contracts the illness, he receives a blood transfusion that leaves him craving blood. Sang-hyun attempts to reconcile his new vampire self and his urges towards sin with his life as a priest. This balance is further complicated by the lust he feels toward a childhood friend’s wife (who is also his stepsister), Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). Thus begins a destructive cycle. As Sang-hyun falls increasingly further from his former self, he contemplates the value of his own existence.
While Park garners many comparisons -- chief among them Quentin Tarantino for his similar studies of violence -- he retains an original approach. Yes, violence and gore are present, but they are rarely an end unto themselves. In Thirst, for example, he uses violent subject matter as an entrance into a world where positivity becomes inverted. Indeed, Sang-hyun’s whole life has been turned upside down simply by chance. It's a study on the dangers of “good,” as well as the destructive power that love, religion, and empathy can have when these virtues become dangerous obsessions.
Ultimately, Thirst is about a priest whose very humanity caused him to become literally inhumane. But can a vampire still be a human? If not, can he justify his killings? Indeed, this is a vampire movie on the level of last year’s great Let the Right One In. Park's film challenges tropes and dares viewers to look beyond what we know about the genre, ensuring that he may go down in history not as that director who did the hammer fight, but as one of his era's most compelling directors.