By James Cain
2019 was the year that Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest seized the zeitgeist with full gusto. The Fleabag character had people all over the world fanning themselves to avoid a case of the vapours, with his actual name remaining a mystery. He was merely the latest – one of the most libidinously triumphant – in a line of on-screen hot priests. Others include Father Brian Finn in “Keeping the Faith”, Father Grandier in “The Devils”, Father Andrew Kiernan in “Stigmata”, Reverend Adam Smallbone in “Rev” and, perhaps most obviously, Friar Fuck in “Sex and the City”. One of the finest men of the faith was given to us by Park Chan-wook in his 2009 vampire romantic-horror, “Thirst”.
“Both Song and Kim are superb in the film, and while Sang-hyun is the lead character, most of the film is a joint-venture between him and Tae-ju.”
Currently enjoying much-deserved adulation for his work in Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, Song Kang-ho was already known to Park fans for his roles in “Joint Security Area” and “Sympathy For Mr Vengeance” (not to mention that superb cameo in “Lady Vengeance”). In “Thirst” he plays Sang-hyun, a friar whose intense masochism is driven by self-doubt and fears of inadequacy. The fresh-faced man of God dies after taking part in a dangerous medical experiment, but thanks to blood-transfusion shenanigans he’s reborn as a vampire. Just as Sang-hyun is grappling with his new existence, he begins an affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the wife of childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). This bizarre love-triangle leads to violent, calamitous consequences.
As with “Lady Vengeance”, “Thirst” is co-written by frequent Park pen-partner Jeong Seo-kyeong, and duo bring the same darkly-comedic and operatic morality sensibilities to this fable. Sang-hyun isn’t led astray by any demonic force to become a vampire, and so his actions are down to his free will alone. Early on he takes a leap from a hospital, only to hilariously get his head stuck in a car windshield several stories below. He self-flagellates over impure thoughts, seeking to stay true to God and heal the sick in his flock. However, his lust for Tae-ju wears him down fairly quickly, causing him to question how much he even cares about God’s morality and wrath.
Both Song and Kim are superb in the film, and while Sang-hyun is the lead character, most of the film is a joint-venture between him and Tae-ju. A woman married into a weird, shabby family, Tae-ju is a woman seeking to break free from her constraints. Her husband / adoptive sibling is a complete fuckwit, while her mother-in-law / adoptive mum rules her life with an iron fist. She runs through the streets barefoot, the cold and discomfort bringing sweet release from her nightmarish home life. Sang-hyun worries that the young woman’s situation might be abusive, and this only deepens his attraction to Tae-ju. His attraction to suffering draws him to his Rapunzel, their sexual chemistry an unhealthy one from the start.
Given that “Thirst” is often an erotic film, Jeong’s talents surely helped to ensure that Tae-ju retains the same agency during the movie’s sex scenes as throughout the rest of the film. While the movie does depict vaginal orgasms (admittedly, they do happen in real life, albeit with great infrequency), the sex feels real and boldly-passionate, the two lovers becoming one. Their sex and romance are reminiscent of the animalistic passion from James M Cain (no relation) novels, with 1934’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” being a spiritual predecessor.
If “Thirst” does have a flaw, it’s the over-reliance on familiar themes. The central romance is one from countless noir stories, while the faith-in-crisis theme has already been explored well in the likes of “Priest” (1994), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988).
“Given that “Thirst” is often an erotic film, Jeong’s talents surely helped to ensure that Tae-ju retains the same agency during the movie’s sex scenes as throughout the rest of the film”
However, this isn’t a huge gripe considering what Park and Jeong do with these themes. For example, once Sang-hyun realises that he’s now a vampire, he and his superior discuss the matter frankly while using the v-word. Sang-hyun’s condition sees him breaking out into horrendous boils (given that his vampirism is holding the disease that killed him at bay), bringing a body-horror element to the romance. The two lovers have different moral standards, an issue which soon sees bodies piling up. And while the film is overly-long at 135 minutes, we’re afforded a supernatural love story that shows the relationship going through a number of huge changes over time.
For those seeking a funny, erotic, thrilling, chilling fable of a vampire film, “Thirst” is it. An unapologetically weird flick (one vengeful spirit is at once hilarious and awful), it takes pitch-black themes like incest, self-harm and slow deaths, and turns them into a goth-as-fuck curio that should be a constant garment in any horror fans wardrobe.