Movie Review: Thirst

Roman Catholic priest Sang Hyun, assigned to the chaplaincy of the hospital in his Korean town, is weary of his helplessness. In his ministry, he grows close to the hospital's patients, consoling them with laughter, music from his recorder, and absolution. But he doesn't feel that he's doing enough. They still die. Father Sang wants to save people.

A dreadful virus, known as the Emmanuel virus, is killing missionaries. It only affects Asians and Caucasians, so a clinic staffed with Africans is seeking a cure. The clinic needs live subjects to test its treatments, and Father Sang volunteers.

So begins director Park Chan-wook's Thirst, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival. A challenging film, Thirst graphically portrays the Christian struggle against the sinful self through bloodshed, horror, and sexual violence. The director creates a character that vividly and gruesomely depicts the helplessness of the human soul before the evils that confront it.

Father Sang (Song Kang-ho) is a thoroughly good man -- kind, compassionate, and self-sacrificing to his very core. He passes a number of tests to prove that he is seeking neither martyrdom nor suicide. He simply volunteers because he knows volunteers are needed, and this is something he can do to help save others. So he is dutifully infected with the Emmanuel virus.

In the clinic, he suffers boils on his skin, and we know from the chief researcher's lecture that those boils are infesting his respiratory and gastro-intestinal tracts as well. In his room, he writes loving letters home to his flock, describing his pleasant (and fictional) vacation, and plays his recorder. Then in the first of the movie's many gross-out scenes, he erupts like a volcano of blood. The copious red stuff pumps from his eyes and ears, and he vomits so much of it that it's forced through his recorder, spilling like breaking waves into his lap.

The clinic staff tries to save him with an emergency blood transfusion, but he slips away, repeating his sacrificial prayer:

In the name of Jesus Christ, grant me the following:
Make everyone avoid me, as a leper whose skin rots.
Make me unable to move, as a person whose limbs have been amputated.
May I live in Hell.

The time of death is called, the sheet placed over his face. The staff turns away, and suddenly, Father Sang's prayer resumes. A miracle! He is not dead! He leaves the clinic and returns home revered as a saint, the only one of fifty volunteers to have survived.

The problem, as Father Sang comes to realize, is that he is no saint at all. His survival has a simple scientific explanation: one of the packets of blood used in the transfusion was donated by a vampire. There was no divine intervention, and Father Sang has not resurrected with the ability to heal the sick. In fact, he still has the deadly virus, and the only treatment for his symptoms is to drink the blood of humans. And this blood is something he craves, and craves badly. Father Sang is Thirsty.

He struggles against this appalling turn of events. He attempts suicide, drinks the blood of coma patients, and joins a weekly mahjongg game. But he barely manages to contain the bloodlusting beast inside. He wants to kill, he wants to drink blood, and above all, he wants sex. He wants it all the time, and he mostly wants it with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the seductive young wife of a childhood friend.

The good Father succumbs to his lust at last, with a great deal of help from Tae-ju, and thus begins a torrential love affair with loads of naked need and longing, plenty of full-frontal nudity, and horrifically humorous murder scenes complete with loud, satisfied slurping. Father Sang becomes increasingly obsessed with Tae-ju, and the result is a stylish and sometimes uneasy blend of art house cinema and black comedy horror flick.

Meanwhile, the movie poses several time-honored Catholic questions. What is the difference between a martyr and a suicide? And is religious belief the basis for morality? Is human goodness enough to quell the demons within? These questions consume Father Sang, as he moves into monstrous and decidedly impious territory. The answers he uncovers generate a kind of resolve that causes him to blur the lines entirely.

In the titanic clash of wills that dominates the film's third act, Tae-ju, delighted with the freedoms of the vampire's life, thinks that death is the end. You die, you're dead. Father Sang, on the other hand, is quite positive that there is a Hell, and that he is headed there fast. Vampires, he realizes, are not immortal. And in one of the film's most telling scenes, Father Sang's shoe falls to the ground, trailing ash and burning embers. Was it a hint?

Thirst is not for the faint of heart. Its graphic portrayals of sex and bloody gore may distract many, if not most, from the deeper issues at play.

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