Despite the fact that his work arrived on American shores at roughly the same time as that of Takashi Miike and other Eastern filmmakers whose films inspired the so-called "Asian horror explosion," Park Chan-Wook is resolutely not a horror filmmaker.
Old Boy, his international breakthrough, was a meditation on rage and revenge, and even his chapter in the Three Extremes anthology failed to provide any kind of conventional thrills. It therefore seems appropriate that Thirst, his first legitimate, full-length foray into the genre, ultimately feels nothing like a horror film either, even if it uses elements of vampire iconography to tell a different kind of terrifying tale.
The film stars Song Kang-Ho as Sang-Hyun, a devout priest who volunteers for an experimental study in the hopes of helping discover a cure for a deadly virus. He himself succumbs to the virus, but while receiving a blood transfusion, Sang-Hyun is infected with another virus—essentially, vampirism—and discovers that he can survive, but only if he regularly consumes human blood. Struggling to come to terms with both his new powers and their limitations, as well as their moral implications, he tries to settle into a life of unobtrusive routine; but when Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Vin), a childhood friend's wife, comes to him seeking escape from a torturous marriage, he finds that his dedication to the cloth is challenged by the appetites of the flesh.
At least in recent terms, Thirst has more in common with a film like Let the Right One In than Twilight or True Blood, in terms of its tone and themes, much less quality. That said, Chan-Wook takes liberties with "vampires" that will no doubt surprise those familiar with the creature's mythology, choosing to include only their need for blood, their super strength and a need to avoid sunlight. Meanwhile, he super-charges his story with sexuality—perhaps not an unfamiliar decision, given the rich history of the creature's connection to, if not embodiment of, physical desire—but manages to do so in the context of his main character's troubled sense of religious morality, creating a different kind of dilemma than, say, the more familiar attraction-repulsion of this seductive creature who devours others' blood.
Indeed, the film's sensuality is one of its most appealing qualities, since Chan-Wook so successfully conveys longing and consummation that the relationship between Sang-Hyun and Tae-Ju feels both erotic and emotionally cathartic. But the director unfortunately overstays his welcome with the story he builds around his concept, extending the film's length to an unnecessary 133 minutes thanks to scenes that fail to consistently build character dimensionality or even narrative momentum. While there's a certain superficial suspense to scenes late in the film when Sang-Hyun and Tae-Ju have built a tenuous lifestyle for themselves, only to find themselves self-destructing as a result of its crippling domesticity, those scenes diminish the focus on the film's moral and emotional themes, as Chan-Wook seems to acquiesce uneasily, and to the detriment of the film, to the more immediate gratification of vampire-themed action.
Ultimately, however, because the film is not about vampires as much as it is about the quandary a human being faces when he must satisfy his appetites at the expense of other humans, Thirst only disappoints when it tries to have it both ways—namely, by indulging both its moral battles and its bloodsucking. In other words, only technically did Park Chan-Wook make a horror movie, which is why those looking for more traditional thrills will likely be unsatisfied by his meditative take on the genre. But then again, so many of the best horror films are those that test its boundaries, or explore outside its previously explored territory; in which case, Thirst might just be the best horror movie of the year so far, precisely because it isn't one, but nevertheless works as though it is anyway.