“Am I a pervert?” wonders an unhappily married young woman exploring graphic and sanguinary sexual territory with her new lover, a Catholic priest who also happens to be a vampire. “Are other women like this?”
This strange, flavorful sex scene in director Park Chan-wook’s terrific new film, Thirst—which won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year—is characteristic of Park’s ability to paint character nuance into even the most lurid crevice of his pictures.
“You could say that the metaphor of vampirism being a… release is probably true.”
“This is a moment when, as a priest, the main character steps over that line that could not be crossed,” Park told The Daily Beast last week. “It is the moment when he makes that moral downfall. And also for the woman, it is a moment of liberation… from this marriage, which to her, felt like hell.”
“So for these two characters, this is such an important moment that I just could not say, ‘And so, they had sex!’ Every facial expression and every position and every noise they make, everything that they say—it was very important that you were able to see these details and think about what these moments mean.”
As he said this, the 45-year-old Park was hunched over a table at New York’s Le Parker Meridien hotel, accompanied by a valiant and perspiring translator who looked barely out of college. Scattered around the room were medical-looking “blood bags” of gushy red syrup that Sony Pictures had given out to promote the film.
The director held himself very still as he answered questions, his expression stoic, his voice a patient murmur. It was a surprisingly reserved presence for a man whose work is generally known not for nuanced love scenes but for squishy, arterial violence.
Thirst honors that tradition. The love affair between the guilt-wracked priest, Sang-hyun, and the sex-starved wife, Tae-ju, is punctuated with moments of voluptuous mayhem—sudden splashes of blood on stark white walls, a hand lovingly tucked into a chest cavity, footless bodies draining into the bathtub.
But the film is also poignant, funny, gorgeous, and even quirky, a tragic love story for adventurous dates (that’s right, don’t go see (500) Days of Summer—see Thirst instead). Oh, and it’s all based on Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola’s 1867 novel about an ambitious young Frenchman who kills his lover’s husband but cannot escape his own guilt. Park recalls being so “immediately drawn to” the novel that he grafted his pre-existing idea for a vampire priest movie onto it. Considering that Thérèse Raquin contains neither priests nor vampires, Thirst is remarkably faithful–I’d venture to say that even Zola himself might be pleased.
In 2003, I came across some near-orgasmic postings on film websites about a South Korean movie called Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The movie hadn’t been released in the United States, and I’d never heard of its director, Park Chan-wook, but was interested enough to track down a Region 0 DVD on eBay.
About thirty minutes into Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance—a gnomic thriller about organ theft, kidnapping, and brutal revenge—the plot seemed arbitrary and potentially incoherent. But by the time it was over, I was astounded by its tragic arc and meticulous complexity.
Then came Park’s follow-up film, Oldboy, about a man imprisoned in an eerie hotel room for fifteen years by anonymous kidnappers, then released and given five days to find out who has tormented him and why. Oldboy is mesmerizing, formally ingenious, and emotionally devastating—not just Park’s best movie but one of the best movies of the decade.
Oldboy, which was a massive critical and commercial hit in South Korea and won the Grand Prix at Cannes, eventually did get a U.S. release, and Park’s reputation began to blossom here as well. At the 2005 New York Film Festival premiere of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the third film in Park’s so-called Vengeance Trilogy, the director got a five-minute standing ovation.
Just about every movie in Park’s filmography concerns a sympathetic protagonist driven to acts of operatic cruelty or violence. He seems to regard this as reflective of the human condition, using his films to explore both the catharsis of bloodshed and its spiritual toll. Thirst literalizes this distinction, with the priest, Sang-hyun, tortured by self-loathing as he survives on blood, while Tae-ju becomes a vampire and exults in her new powers.
“When it comes to Tae-ju’s character, you could say that the metaphor of vampirism being a… release is probably true,” Park said. “To her, becoming a vampire, it’s not a curse. She accepts this new identity and seems to even enjoy it… She revels in the fact that she doesn’t have to control all her desires and all her instincts.” (It’s worth noting that the young actress Kim Ok-vin gives an extraordinary performance as the initially mousy, ultimately bloodthirsty Tae-ju.)
Park said that he wanted Tae-ju’s homicidal joy to stand “in stark contrast with Sang-hyun, who finds himself in a serious moral dilemma, and it’s a source of suffering.”
That suffering was the seed of Thirst. In the late 1990s, Park recalled, he “was interested in telling a story about a Catholic priest. When would be those moments when a Catholic priest might doubt his own faith? Or if he was ever tempted to commit a sin, what would he do to overcome that temptation?” But he wasn’t sure how he wanted to tell the story, so it languished. And then, one day, an idea came to him.
“What if he was a vampire?”
Park’s otherwise sphinx-like face broke into a smile.
Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Hustler, The New York Sun, Identity Theory, The Barcelona Review, The Huffington Post, and others. He was born in New Orleans and lives in New York, and his blog is Brothercyst.