It must be difficult for a filmmaker to make their mark in the vampire genre these days. I had assumed that surely every possible angle had already been covered by directors as diverse as Murnau, Herzog, Alfredson, Jordan, Coppola, Brooks and, ahem, Hardwicke. Saying that, perhaps no auteur is as suited to the vampire genre as South Korean director Park Chan-wook, a man who has made a career out of films full of sexual perversity, doomed romances and a seemingly insurmountable volume of blood. I suppose we shouldn’t close the book on vampires until Park has had his say, which he does in spectacular fashion in Thirst.
Priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) has grown tired of his posting at the local hospital; he spends his days reading last rites to comatose patients on the brink of death and consoling nurses during confession. Surrounded by death, he craves life, or at least the possibility to help those still living. He signs himself up for an experimental drug trial in an effort to find a cure for the highly contagious EV virus. He is exposed to the virus, but the drugs don’t work. Boils grow on his face, he grows weak and the blood loss begins. Despite a blood transfusion, Sang-hyeon passes away. Briefly.
He awakens soon after with renewed vitality, seemingly cured of the disease. People come from far and wide to receive his “healing” powers, including Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook), mother of Sang-hyeon’s old school chum Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). He is able to save Kang-woo from his illness, only to discover he was probably better off dead. The insufferably child-like Kang-woo still lives at home with his mother while his adopted sister/wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) suffers quietly in her suffocating situation. Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju find themselves drawn to one another, although even they can acknowledge that a relationship between a priest and a married woman probably wouldn’t go down well in their neighbourhood. A further wrench is thrown into the works when Sang-hyeon relapses into illness, passes away (once again) and awakens … a vampire. It seems that during his first blood transfusion he received genuine vampire blood. That’s annoying. Now the formerly saintly Sang-hyeon has to satisfy his sinful urges, including both his blood-lust and his lust for Tae-ju. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The plot of Thirst is denser than you would expect; it twists and turns more frequently than any viewer can reasonably keep up with. The film is loosely based on Emile Zola’s 19th century novel Therese Raquin (don’t Google it if you want to keep away from spoilers). At first it seems more slapdash than Park’s previous works, notably the three films that made up his Vengeance Trilogy; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It moves from plot point to unexpected plot point, each time refusing to adhere to our expectations of a traditional vampire movie. The film doesn’t deal with the issues you think it will, but how can that be considered a detriment to a film’s quality? As I mentioned, those issues we are conditioned to expect have already been dealt with ad nauseam in other films. Upon second (and third) viewings of Thirst, all complaints had washed away. What had seemed like messy plot progression was simply a surprise-laden screenplay.
Kang Ho-song and Kim Ok-bin give two of the most complex and demanding performances of the year. As Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju’s relationship evolves (or should that be mutates?) the actors are called upon to change themselves, physically and emotionally. As Sang-hyeon’s torment grows greater (a priest that can only survive on blood!) he becomes more withdrawn and terrifying, making several horrifying decisions without even saying a word. Tae-ju meanwhile shifts from smoulderingly oppressed wife into a shrieking Lady Macbeth. Towards the end of the film, the two of them share a rooftop chase that is as beautiful to behold as it is utterly breathtaking. Yet Park does not forget about his characters, allowing the power to shift between them continually in this very short sequence. It reminds us that we have no way to predict just where this film is going, and how thankful we should be that Park is our tour guide through this demented world.
Park Chan-wook’s recurring themes and visual traits are all here on display. Powerless characters still use sex as a means of declaring authority and ghostly apparitions continue to appear to guilty parties. The film was shot by Park’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and it shows. The unconventional framing and flattened mise-en-scene once again makes Park’s film singularly recognisable. Although the content and presentation of Thirst may seem reminiscent of his earlier work, it truly is one of the most refreshingly original films of the year, and certainly the most unique vampire film of the past few years.
When you think about it, vampires are the only beasties from horror mythology that are actually thirsty. Your wolfmen and your zombies and your what-have-you’s are all hungry, but only blood-sucking vampires recognise the need for regular hydration. Satiating your hunger is certainly important, but it’s nowhere near as essential as quenching your thirst. It’s a matter-of-fact requirement of survival, be you evil creature or human. I may not require blood to survive, but my thirst for Park Chan-wook’s films remains voracious.
Thirst arrives on DVD January 13th.