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Priest Takes Unholy Communion

Focus Features

A priest in a vampire movie usually has one of two functions: to explain the cursed origins of the subhuman creatures or to eventually help dispatch them via a cross, holy water and a wooden stake. But what if the priest is the vampire? In “Thirst” – winner of the Prix du Jury in Cannes – commercially and critically acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook uses this narrative twist to put his own unique and visceral spin on the vampire film’s familiar themes of contagion, morality and eroticism.

The film follows idealistic but bored priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), who asks to be transferred to Africa to volunteer for an experimental vaccine designed to treat a blood disease curiously afflicting only non-African men. Considering the virulence of the disease’s symptoms (painful pustules and leprosy-like lesions, vomiting blood) and the fact that no volunteer has survived, Sang-hyun seems hell-bent on achieving martyrdom. However, a last-minute blood transfusion infected with a vampire virus transforms him into one of the undead and a walking miracle for devout Christians. Back home in South Korea, Sang-hyun is reunited with a sickly old friend, whose unhappy sexy wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), plunges the priest into a maelstrom of his new fleshly desires and old spiritual allegiances.

Mr. Park’s first glimmer of an idea for a vampire movie occurred to him during the filming of blockbuster “Joint Security Area,” also starring Mr. Song.

“I only had two sequences in my mind: how Sang-hyun, the priest character, becomes a vampire, and also how the woman, Tae-ju, becomes a vampire,” Mr. Park said, speaking through a translator. “But I didn’t have ‘Where did this woman come from?’ ‘What was her relationship with the main character?’ And I left these questions blank for many years.”

Mp. Park flirted with vampire elements in “Cut,” his contribution to “Three ... Extremes” omnibus horror film, but the turning point came when Mr. Park picked up a copy of Émile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin” and used the novel’s love-triangle plot to flesh out his script.

The South Korean Roman Catholic community has been unperturbed by the frank depictions of sexuality and acts of violence committed by Sang-hyun’s character, which is surprising compared to Catholic organizations in the West protesting against any controversial representations of priests or the religion, most notably in recent public firestorms around “The Da Vinci Code.” Mr. Park, himself raised as Roman Catholic, insists that given the politically progressive role of the church in South Korea, he did not expect any problems.

“There were Catholic nuns and priests in the production of “Thirst” who were there to make sure the details of what the main character does is actually correct,” he said. “They were all given copies of the scripts to read and the reaction was just that ‘It’s only a movie.’ ”

“Thirst” carries the distinction of being the first South Korean feature to be co-financed and distributed by an American studio, Focus Features. Mr. Park claims that he was not pressured from his American producers to edit or censor the content to appeal to a wider audience or use English-speaking actors because he explores the themes of the vampire genre in a uniquely Korean context.

“In this film, one of the themes I explore is things coming from the outside coming inside,” he said. “Part of this is portrayed by the fact that vampirism or say, capitalism, which is part of the Western culture makes it way into Korea, and it's interesting to see the way in which these characters react to this, whether they accept it or reject it.”

Despite “Thirst’s” particular resonance with Korean political history and social struggles, Mr. Park is open to this film and any of his films being remade in the West for different audiences.

“Some people come up to me and say aren’t you worried about Americans making this film and ruining your film?” he said. “But I don’t feel this way at all. If they made it the same way it would be boring. So I would expect it and like it to be completely different than his film.” This news will undoubtedly disappoint fans who are currently igniting Internet message boards with their outrage over the impending remake of “Oldboy” by Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. (All of the films in Mr. Park’s revenge trilogy have been optioned, as well as earlier work “Joint Security Area.”)

“Thirst” represents both the best and worst of Mr. Park’s visual and storytelling styles. As usual, “Thirst” boasts brilliantly vivid set and sound design, sweeping changes in tone – from tragic to darkly humorous to straight gross-out horror and back again – and overall epic filmmaking. Mr. Song is the best part of most films he's in, and his calibrated performance in “Thirst” anchors what ultimately becomes an unwieldy and sprawling story. But about two-thirds of the way into “Thirst,” Mr. Park loses his normally masterful grip on tone, turning Tae-ju’s character into an irritating caricature and leaving the audience to keenly feel the length of the film. The result is a visually stunning but disjointed last act without the emotional wallop of Mr. Park’s better work.


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