It is becoming increasingly evident that our society is suffering from severe overpopulation—of vampires. Everywhere you look nowadays—in books, on television, in the comics, and on the movie screen—the blood-suckers are there, sometimes doing terrible things to mere mortals but often falling in love with them, and more and more being used as easy metaphors for something else. And it’s also becoming increasingly clear that while overfamiliarity may not necessarily be breeding contempt, it’s certainly fostering a sense of ennui.
Perhaps that’s why “Thirst,” from cult favorite Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), seems so, if you’ll pardon the expression, bloodless. That’s despite the fact that it boasts, even in so crowded a field, an unusual premise. The vampire in this case is a Catholic priest, Father Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), a member of a religious order who serves as chaplain at a local hospital. Disheartened, as it were, at watching patients suffer and die, he volunteers to undergo a medical experiment to isolate a virus—a procedure that involves a blood transfusion. He’s the only participant to survive, but the treatment has an unfortunate side effect. It turns him into a vampire, though he’s no less desolate undead than he was alive, and to make matters worse, unless he has regular sanguine draughts, he breaks out in unsightly boils. He also has to avoid sunlight and rest during the day in a clothes cabinet.
His new condition, moreover, hasn’t lessened his libidinous proclivities. He enters into an affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), wife of Kang-woo (Shin Ha-gyun), the son of a dictatorial shopkeeper (Kim Hae-suk) who’d adopted the girl, mistreated her and then compelled the marriage. (The priest regularly plays mahjong with the family and their friends.) Kang-woo is a prissy mama’s boy, and Tae-ju becomes a voracious lover to the priest, and an even more voracious vampire after Sang-hyeon has infected her, too; together they drown her husband (who later haunts them), which gives his mother a stroke and leaves her totally paralyzed.
Trouble ensues when Tae-ju grows increasingly rabid and the dour priest is unable to control her. There’s also a subplot involving a blind confrere of Sang-hyeon who wants the priest to infect him in hopes of recovering his sight. Matters come to a head when their regular party guests become the main course at one of their weekly gatherings.
Park says that “Thirst” was inspired by Zola’s “Terese Raquin,” and thee two certainly share the adultery plot. Otherwise they have little in common. The novel is a passionate affair, but the film, apart from all the blood, is oddly stilted and deliberate. It’s as though Park had devised the set-pieces he wanted to film and then constructed the script around them, putting more thought to their design and choreography than to energizing them. As a result we’re treated to some visually arresting scenes of the two vampires skittering over rooftops, for example, and Park constructs a pretty grotesque sequence of the killing of the houseguests. He also laces the grotesquerie with humor, as in the finale, when the priest decides that things have gone too far and need to end. The look of the picture throughout, in fact, is impressive.
But the acting is mostly disappointing, with Song so dour and dull that you lose interest in him, and most of the supporting cast overdoing things so much that the contrast becomes grating. Only Kim Ok-vin registers; she’s very exuberant and catty, but in her case it fits the character.
And Park never manages to invest the striking images with much vigor, and he overlooks, or downplays, many opportunities for using the protagonist’s religious background as part of the jest. (Believers look upon him as some sort of miracle worker, for example, but that idea is pretty much dropped without any elaboration.)
So in the end “Thirst” leaves your hope for something not just unusual but tasty unquenched.