Death Becomes Her

Amy Taubin on Thirst

Park Chan-wook, Thirst, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin).

HAVING WALKED OUT OF OLDBOY (2003) AT CANNES—preferring a dinner with friends to the spectacle of watching someone swallow a live squid—and fallen asleep long before the halfway point of the DVDs of both Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), I can’t call myself a Park Chan-wook enthusiast. Nevertheless, Thirst, the latest viscerally violent bloodfest from the Korean director dear to Quentin Tarantino’s heart, thrilled me head to toe, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. There’s a lot of digit-sucking foreplay in two lengthy, rough-and-raw sex scenes, which put the anemic, PG-13 yearnings of Twilight to shame. But my affection for Thirst has mostly to do with the performance of Kim Ok-vin as Tae-ju, a sullen household slave who’s transformed into a ravenous, punishing bloodsucker when her bodily fluids mingle with those of Sang-hyun, a vampire priest played by Korean megastar Song Kang-ho (of The Host fame). Not only does Kim, a recent beauty-pageant winner with almost no big-screen acting experience, hold her own against Song, she seems to have inspired her director to make up scenes for her on the spot, just to capture the split-second transformations of her pretty, slightly feral face as she ricochets between shock and glee, avidity and satiation.

After a perfunctory setup (in which Sang-hyun, a good clergyman with a taste for martyrdom, offers himself as a guinea pig to an African doctor testing a vaccine against a deadly hemorrhagic virus, contracts the gruesome disease, dies, instantly comes back to life, and then returns to Korea to be venerated as a saint and a healer), the film proper kicks into gear. Recruited by the self-aggrandizing Madame Ra to save Kang-woo, her spoiled, half-witted, cancer-ravaged son, Sang-hyun becomes smitten with Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju. One whiff of her menstrual blood and he can no longer deny his vampire urges. (Could Thirst be the first movie by an A-list director since Brian De Palma’s Carrie [1976] that specifically connects female power to menstruation?)

But soon their passion turns into a power struggle replete with physical abuse. (I really objected to the scene in which he bashes her into the side of a concrete building and then drops her several stories onto her head.) The ostensible reason for the struggle: He’s a Catholic, she’s an atheist. He tries to suck just a little bit from his victims without killing them; she is intoxicated by her own power and wants revenge on everyone who has wronged her—beginning with her vicious husband. “Chop off their feet, hang them over the bathtub, and let them drain into the Tupperware,” Sang-hyun instructs her, resignedly, after the Grand Guignol climax of the rather meandering second act (in which they massacre most of her mother-in-law’s relatives and assorted friends). In this delirious but deeply committed battle between the bohemian vampires and the petite bourgeoisie, between a man trapped by the patriarchal church and a woman who wants to annihilate everyone and everything that stands in the way of her freedom and pleasure, the only camp element is the subtitles—and I don’t know whether they capture the tone of the dialogue or not. What I can tell you is that I hated the ending, but since Thirst, despite its baroque flourishes, is a fairly conventional vampire film, it couldn’t have been any other way.

Thirst opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 31. For more details, click here.