directed by Park Chan-wook
(Moho, 2009)

I was very happy when Let The Right One In was released. Lately, it was beginning to seem as though the dominant vampire meme was about young women who would willingly surrender their personal power to a handsome stranger, as if they had no purpose to their life other than to be a vulnerable lover. Along came Tomas Alfredson's LTROI, and after that, Park Chan-wook's Thirst. Both movies do a fantastic job of injecting new life into a genre whose best efforts were beginning to amount to little more than shallow, exotic setpieces that moved seamlessly from cliche to cliche.

Thirst draws on several sources: Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin, as well as An American Tragedy and The Postman Always Rings Twice. A young woman, married to a dull, cloddish husband, decides to do away with him. Throw in a priest so hungry for martyrdom and enlightenment that he gives "co-dependent" a new name, and a rare virus that makes vampires out of people, and you've got a gorgeous, wild, splashy movie that feels uneven in spots but as a whole is surreal as it is intelligent, as giddy as it is dark and thoughtful, and overall, brilliant.

Catholic priest Sang-hyun wants to do more than he's been doing, which thus far amounts to ministering to patients at local hospitals. His sacrifices, and the praise he receives for them, do nothing to ease his deep feelings of self-doubt and sadness about having to live in a world apparently engaged in nonstop destructive behavior. Seeking to ease his spiritual angst, he offers himself as a test subject in a medical experiment, attempting to cure the deadly Emmanuel Virus. Although the experiment fails, Sang-hyun recovers fully after a blood transfusion, the only patient to do so out of all 500 test subjects. As word of his miraculous healing spreads, thousands come to his services, believing that he has healing powers. Among them are Sang-hyun's childhood friend, Kang-woo, a recovering cancer patient, his wife, Tae-ju, and Kang-woo's mother.

Although Sang-hyun enjoys spending his time with his old friend and his family at their weekly mahjong nights, the dark side of his recovery soon rears its head. He coughs up blood, can't stand sunlight, has developed superhuman strength, and has a craving for human blood. To top it all off, there is a growing sexual attraction to Tae-ju, whose dreary life with her dim-witted mama's boy of a husband and overprotective mother-in-law, is slowly driving her crazy. When the two consummate their affair, Tae-jun rejects Sang-hyun's plea for her to run away with him, suggesting instead that they conspire together to kill her husband. And that's just the set-up for the marvelous, darkly humored gorefest to come.

Thirst is an ethical thriller/drama as much as a horror movie. It addresses issues of faith, morality and human sexuality in ways no other vampire film (save LTROI) has ever done. The characters start out as stereotypes, yet by the end they are fully realized, complex individuals. What makes this uneven but still understandable movie so brilliant is the way Park, like Alfredson, has deliberately ignored the usual tropes of vampire movies -- garlic, bats, holy water, the usual suspects -- in favor of a more realistic approach to what life might actually be like for a real vampire. There is nothing comfortable or glamorous about it. It is a challenge to Sang-hyun's faith, a weight around his neck that draws him into a growing darkness that is slowly destroying him. This is true horror: being swallowed alive by your own failing humanity.

Too many vampire movies toy with concepts they never fully explore. Vampires who have serious spiritual issues, who have to deal with a cold, hard world that doesn't become less so simply because one has acquired superhuman strength, aren't going to be as scary and shocking as the special effects-laden Twilight movies, but they will come across as very human. In fact, the further they descend into what is now a living nightmare of a half-life, they more human they become, and starkly so, controlled by very human impulses and desires that play out in tightly composed action sequences underlined with long, quiet moments that alternate between weird and thrilling. Sang-hyun wants to lead a quiet, non-predatory half-life, while Tae-ju, whose dark side is really quite dark after years of hen-pecked drudgery, is much more willing to kill. She wants to be a hunter; he wants to be passive. Their mutually disagreeable world views create terrific tension for the final, explosive showdown.

Thirst is an extravaganza of terrific moments and scenes that range from gruesome and disturbing to pitch-black comedy, all combined with cinematography so stunning that it is visual poetry. Blazing sunsets, a room painted white for the specific purpose of emphasizing all the blood that will soon be flowing over the stark white floors, dark and dull moments that lull the viewer into false complacency, followed by scenes of graphic violence. Multiple genres are combined to create an unsettling sequence of events that does become sluggish in the middle, in part because of the director's tendency to cut across and utilize so many formats, creating a sort of chaotic, numbing excess, but all of the chances Park takes are redeemed in the final third act of the movie, when the lovers turn on each other and the blood truly starts flowing, in more ways than one.

Really, there's actually more blood here than in any vampire movie I've ever seen, yet Park's vampires have no fangs. Being an actual vampire is hard work. Fangs are the easy way out. Survival demands constant vigilance and adaptation, such as the creative re-using of hypodermic needles and cooking and gardening implements. Park literally de-fanged his movie and in so doing made it even darker and scarier ... for the vampires themselves. The physical violence acts as a mirror to the emotional violence taking place in their souls. The holy man who denied himself everything now lusts for all human pleasure. The woman who wanted to be free of her dictated, stifling existence, is now an overbearing dictator. This is the underlying structure of Park's film and is what keeps the film intact even when the narrative threatens to wander off at some points: what we desire most, whether it's puritan spirituality or passionate eroticism, contains within itself a shadow self. In the end, we will be destroyed by the very animal we suppress. These things are never obvious in our natural lives, which is perhaps what motivated Park to see what would happen if supernatural circumstances could call forth those inner, hidden selves.

That's what's so neat about vampires, and that's what's so neat about LTROI and Thirst: vampires challenge us on so many levels, yet this admittedly iconic image is usually reduced to one common denominator, typically sex or campy, excessive splatter. Not in these movies.

Park's ending is as unique as Alfredson's, and the exact opposite of it. Whereas the young vampires, at the end of LTROI, lean into and embrace their state of being, effectively fleeing mundanity, Park's vampires are eventually overtaken by that very humanity. As far as Park is concerned, you can indulge in the pleasures of spirit or flesh to the furthest extent that you can, but you can't ever really get out of being human.

Thirst accomplishes so much, on so many levels, that it's hard to be too negative about the slower bits. If you can hang in there during the down part, you'll be rewarded with an ending that is truly worth all the trouble. This movie took many awards at the Cannes film festival, and they are well-earned. It is one of the most thought-provoking films, let alone horror movies, made recently. Definitely something to see, if you're a fan of the genre or not.

review by
Mary Harvey

3 July 2010

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