I’m a sucker for vampire films (pun recognized, but not intended) and spend an unusual amount of time thinking about the origins of the mythological trope and the rules of the monsters that have resurged into the spotlight, only being outpaced by superheros in today’s pop culture landscape.
I’m willing to accept that this might give me a pre-bias for Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s newest thriller, Thirst, because it does vampire well. Thirst presents a vampire story where the monster isn’t the basis of the entire plot and when romance enters the fray, it’s not the central point of the story.
Twilight is a Mormon romance between an idiot little girl and a vampire who happened to be turned when he looked like Robert Pattinson. True Blood hinges on the premise that vampires have “come out of the coffin” and sets its action in backwoods Louisiana, which is visually fantastical in the first place, to lull you into the premise before going crazy with inter-vampire politics and an obsession with drawing out the rules of vampires (It’s season 2 and I’m still not sure what powers a vampire’s Maker has over his/her Ward). Twilight’s vampire love says “look but don’t touch” while True Blood’s all about the sucking & f*cking. Thirst plays like a fever dream in comparison.
Song Kang-ho plays the man-of-the-cloth, Sang-hyun, who genuinely wants to help save lives by exposing himself to a deadly tropical virus so he can be a guinea pig for a new, ineffective, vaccine. Of 500 godly subjects infected, he is the only one who survives the horrible last stage of the virus: violently puking blood. As he’s dying in the quarantined hospital, he’s given a transfusion of infected blood that brings him back to life.
Suddenly, he’s a man of Christ again; a healer of the sick. His boils and pustules from the virus begin to disappear and he’s reunited with a family from his past, the drunken Madame Ra (Kim Hae-sook) and her near-mentally handicapped son Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). When Sang-hyun was an orphan being raised by monks, Madame Ra used to let young Sang-hyun play with her son. Also present in the household is Tae-ju (the talented Kim Ok-vin, who effortlessly swings from hurt and sexy to creepy and dangerous), an orphaned girl semi-adopted by Madame Ra.
Tae-ju is a lot like Cinderella from the first moments we see her; quiet, subservient and treated more like a pet or a nurse than a daughter. She has thick calluses on her feet from running aimlessly through the city at night, running from how trapped she feels. Madame Ra refers to her as a puppy and Tae-ju herself says she’s been the family’s dog for years.
To his horror, Sang-hyun discovers he needs blood to keep the deadly virus at bay, the healing factor of a vampire is the only thing keeping him undead. At first, he quietly feeds on a coma patient by sucking blood through an IV like a straw. One of his mentors, a blind and wheelchair bound monk lets him feed off his wrists occasionally. Sang-hyun also finds himself lusting after Tae-ju, an attraction she seems to return.
And that’s the summary of the first act, the titular Thirst takes over from there and takes the audience on a wild, twisted ride through the negative consequences of unbridled desire. Sang-hyun has dual thirsts, one for blood and one for sex with Tae-ju. His priesthood is quick to go as Tae-ju flirts with him. She thirsts for freedom from her suffocating life, but knows she can’t attain it while she’s in a forced marriage to Madame Ra’s retard child.
Throughout the beginning of the film, the plot lurches forward while Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon create an atmosphere of foreboding. Park’s script, adapted from Émile Zola’s novel “Thérèse Raquin,” has a lot of humor, but the laughter gets more uncomfortable as the film turns into a noir flick about a seemingly-innocent and abused wife using sex to goad a priest into murdering her husband.
As soon as Sang-hyun breaks his no-killing rule, the film snaps and Park, the same director that brought us Oldboy in all its disturbing glory, jumps from sequence to sequence taking apart his main character in brutal fashion.
The film has a little misogynistic slant to it, when we learn that Tae-ju uses her sex to manipulate and will go to excessive, emotionally devastating and self-mutilating lengths to get what she wants. When the love story sours and Tae-ju decides she thirsts for a new type of freedom – the freedom to kill – the message seems to be that when a girl discovers the power of her sex it is both empowering and terrifying. Kim Ok-vin plays her part as half-mad/half-succubus and 100% predator.
Thirst’s plot isn’t as coherent as some will hope. But the movie is a mosaic of imagery, violence and genuine questions about desire and ethics, love and bloodlust.
It just happens to be about vampires.
The reason that Thirst is such a shining example of a vampire movie in the times of vampire-saturation is because it’s not a monster story or a love story. The vampire, culturally, has always transformed itself to become what we fear. Very early on, a vampire was just a curse that would kill family members or infants in the Dark Ages. Bram Stoker made vampires about sex, Ann Rice made them about loneliness and tormented feelings about your identity, Stephanie Meyer made them sparkle.
But vampires are none of these things. They were meant to be romantic because evil is always tempting and seductive, not because a strong, eternally young stud is what every teenage girl dreams of. Vampires work best when they are used as they were intended to be: as a metaphor for the evil we fear; what’s lurking in the dark, what looks like such a gift even when you know its hell masquerading as heaven.
Thirst shows us a man becoming a monster by showing us what happens when you give into desires you know are wrong. That monster just happens to be a vampire priest.
If you can stand subtitles, seek this one out.