Park Chan-Wook

We know vampires never die, so it’s safe to assume that the impulse to make movies about them won’t go away anytime soon either. At best, it will diversify, finding newer, stranger ways to make that ever-necessary appeal for our accommodation. Consider Thirst, from Park Chan-wook, the Korean director best known for a trilogy of films about vengeance, who now has made a romantic/horrific comedy-drama about a very reluctantly blood-sucking Roman Catholic priest.

The result, with its willfully unbalanced ratio of shock and subtlety, its liberal sampling of choice elements from other genres of film and literature, and its inventive melodramatic delirium, is wonderfully strange. Song Kang-ho is riveting as the afflicted priest, whose dubious involvement with the repressed wife (Kim Ok-vin) of his longtime best friend (Shin Ha-kyun) becomes rather slurpingly sensual. In general, it’s a production of sensational confidence. Recently, with an interpreter, Park met to discuss it.

What has it been like for you to talk to people about this film?

During the process of explaining my own film, I get the feeling that what I wanted to say in the film is getting summarized or tidied up in my mind. When you’re in a creative process, it’s not always that you keep summarizing, or you turn what you’re trying to say into sentences. More often, you are moved by inspirations or emotions in creating films. But when thrown into these situations, it’s good that I have to describe what my intentions were.

OK, so why a vampire priest?

The fact that I grew up in a Catholic family has been useful, but only as a starting point. I needed a protagonist for this film, and I wanted there to be a very dramatic change when he becomes a vampire. I wanted to take this character and place him at the highest place possible, then drop him to the lowest depth. And not just any Catholic priest, mind you, but this priest who has an earnest, sincere love for humanity and wants to do good deeds. But then at his lowest point, of course, he feeds on human blood. So to make this moral downfall as dramatic as possible, these two positions were chosen.

Are you courting controversy with the Catholic Church?

If a Catholic came up to me and said this film is a blasphemy and this film is evil, that must be somebody who hasn’t seen the film at all. If that person actually went to see this film, he would realize this priest was somebody who wanted to do a very good deed–and in return, he’s turned into a vampire, of all things. It would be enough for someone to blame God or curse God for putting him in the situation. But this priest doesn’t do that. He tries to accept the fact that he’s turned into a vampire. And he tries to still hold on to his faith, while at the same time trying to live and survive as a vampire. He does this because Catholic teachings have it that if you commit suicide, it’d be a sin. If he stopped trying to survive, it would be indirectly committing suicide, and a sin. So he tries to make these two very different things coexist, his vampirism and his faith. He tries to avoid committing sins whenever possible. For instance, he drinks blood from a coma patient–but only so much that it won’t kill the person. He tries to avoid sin or at least tries to do something that is less wrong. For a Catholic who has seen how much this priest struggles to remain moral and hold on to his faith, you just couldn’t say this film puts Catholicism in a bad light.

As a vampire, he has the usual aversion to sunlight, but isn’t affected by a crucifix. Does that mean the source of his infection isn’t supernatural?

Yes. I don’t actually believe that vampirism exists in the real world, of course. But I wanted to make it so that in this particular film’s world, this is something that could happen. That’s why I got rid of all the funny clichés–and, having done so, what remained was only the essence of vampirism. It becomes something that feels like it could really happen. So I purposefully used the process of transformation through transfusion of blood, which is a very medical method of turning somebody into a vampire. And I emphasized the fact that the blood has been transfused in a hospital environment to make it appear as though this is something that is a medical or a biological phenomenon. Vampirism is treated as a kind of disease. So what I did was to take all the mysticism away from vampirism and try to make the most realistic vampire film possible in the history of cinema.

So if you aren’t scared of vampires, what are you scared of?

I’m afraid it has nothing to do with this particular film. But the answer is that what scares me is to be in a situation where, after a number of commercial failures of my films, I can’t make my next film. I’ve gone through that experience: After making my first film, I wasn’t able to make my next for four years because it was a failure. And after making my second film I was again in a situation where I wasn’t able to make a film for three years. During that time I wrote numerous scripts and visited all the production companies trying to beg for my films to be made. And I got married and I had a daughter–and now this problem of making a living became very real to me. So I had to resort to work as a film critic in order to make a living. I was writing about other people’s films, and I felt this was kind of a cruel joke, a mockery of my suffering. I really wanted to make my own films, but I had to do something else for a living, and that something else is not just any other job but one that reminds me what I’m acutely missing. If I were a carpenter, it would have been much better. So, to be stuck in that situation again, to go back to those years is the great fear, what scares me the most. And it could happen.