Some say the mark of a great film is that it defies our expectations. If that's the case, then Oldboy director Park Chan-wook's latest should be considered one of the best. Thirst is the story of a Catholic priest who becomes a vampire, and has thus earned the label of a horror flick, but the film itself is virtually genre-proof. Sure, the experience of watching it was somewhat similar to that of any slasher, in that I had to cringe and turn my head away from the gore from time to time (an embarrassing admission for a film reviewer). But the sheer variety and complexity of the thoughts and emotions Thirst conjured makes it much more than just "horror" and, frankly, much more than just another film.
Appropriately, Thirst is a feast for the senses, Park's sound and visuals quickly tumbling toward the operatic as priest Sang-Hyun (The Host's Song Kang-ho) surrenders more and more to his vampiric desires. Sang-Hyun's addictive relationship with the young Tae-Joo (Kim Ok-vin) nearly puts him—and us—on sensory overload. Park acknowledges—or rather, foreshadows—that this isn't necessarily a good thing, making their sex scenes alternately titillating and disgusting.
What's most startling, though, is how such carnality is often meshed with a hyperbolic, almost slapstick sense of humor. When Sang-Hyun "feeds," we find him lying on the floor of a hospital room, taking pulls from a patient's IV like he's sipping a milkshake through a straw. And when he and Tae-Joo sleep together for the first time, she literally has to pry his stubborn virginal legs apart to make it happen.
Park has dubbed his own film a "vampire melodrama," and there is definitely a strong classical Hollywood influence at play here. Tae-Joo is a modern update on the femme fatale of the '40s, right down to the way she convinces Sang-Hyun to murder her husband, clutching his shoulder a la Norma Desmond. And as in the best traditional noir films, it is she who steals the show and whose story we ultimately remember most. This is due in no small part to Kim, who is both classic and creative in her journey from a ghost of a young girl to a delightfully manipulative monster of a woman. To think that this young actor's career has only just begun is truly exciting.
Certain viewers may find it jarring to watch Thirst seamlessly shift from horror to dark comedy to suspense thriller to romance, but its themes of morality, guilt, and redemption are consistent and utterly powerful. For this reason alone, it is worth seeing, preferably on the big screen for the sake of Park's meticulous compositions, and if you're anything like me, you'll crave a second viewing as soon as the end credits roll.