Song Kang-ho wants to do good in a world where a lot of good needs doing. A friar assigned to a Korean hospital—and not one of the cushy wards—he helps ease the suffering of those who suffer the most. He even volunteers for a highly experimental, and not entirely Church-approved, medical study to combat a deadly, leprosy-like virus called FIV. That study leaves Song dead, but fortunately, the condition is temporary. Unfortunately, his revival comes with some side effects, most notably a new taste for human blood.
Director Park Chan-wook unleashed waves of violence in a trilogy of operatic revenge dramas (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), but viewers looking for this vampire excursion to be a pointy-toothed variation of the same should adjust their expectations. Its plot taken loosely—though not that loosely—from Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Thirst features no shortage of vampiric doings, but couches them in a story of corruption and guilt in which the bloodsucking often feels like an afterthought. Made famous by his miraculous resurrection, Song keeps getting dragged from God’s service into man’s world. He develops a cult-like following, and his celebrity draws the attention of an old friend (Shin Ha-kyun) who begins inviting him to home for a weekly game of mahjongg. There, Song meets Shin’s meek wife (Kim Ok-vin), whose resentment of the subservient role she plays for her husband and his mother dovetails with hidden depths of passion. Soon, Song is forgetting his priestly vows, and he and Kim are only interrupting their athletic lovemaking because he has a mood-breaking need to treat a comatose patient like a milkshake. Shortly thereafter, Kim starts developing her own interest in the red stuff.
Park’s film owes more to In The Realm Of The Senses than 30 Days Of Night. Shedding moral qualms like layers of dead skin, Song and Shin create a nation of two where they imagine themselves untouched by the laws that govern the rest of the world. But one look at Song’s eyes, which reflect kindness and doubt even when he’s chowing down on a victim, reveals that their world is in danger of crumbling from within. In spite of some memorable setpieces, Park’s film concerns itself as much with those moments of doubt as with the sight of blood spattering under harsh fluorescents. Consequently, Thirst never picks up the momentum of Park’s best-known work. But its turgid pace creates a queasy fascination all its own, drawing viewers into an ever-darkening locus of sin and obsession where even the wish for redemption comes at a terrible cost.