The Body, the Blood
Sex, Christ and vampires
by Molly Templeton
THIRST: Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Park and Chung Seo-kyung. Inspired by Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Cinematography, Chung Chung-hoon. Music, Cho Young-uk. Starring Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook and Shin Ha-kyun. Focus Features, 2009. R. 133 minutes.
Thirst is a vampire movie, but it’s also not. Like last year’s quietly unforgettable Let the Right One In, it adjusts vampire mythology to suit its themes; unlike a certain other vampire film currently hotly anticipated by a particular crowd, Thirst doesn’t shy away from a key element of vampirism: blood. Blood gushes from an infected man’s mouth, sprays across a pristine white floor, drips into a bathtub; when a new vampire’s heightened senses are awakened, even a small, unseen amount of blood sends him reeling. The sound of a vampire guzzling blood is as amplified as the sound of two people furiously kissing, and both become deeply uncomfortable, too intimate, too human. Vampirism, in director Park Chan-wook’s hands, is visceral and vicious and disturbingly down to earth. Park’s vampires have no aversion to sunlight; they cast reflections; they don’t grow fangs or find their faces warping into those of monsters. The transformation, for the most part, is internal.
For Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho, from The Host), the transformation is a moral test. Sang-hyun, as Thirst begins, is a gentle priest who volunteers for a medical experiment. A vaccine needs testing; the virus it will hopefully cure is a nasty thing that raises ugly pustules on a person’s skin and sets them to spewing blood. Sang-hyun survives, but only after a blood transfusion — where or who the blood came from is beside the point, but clearly it was some pretty special blood. Soon after he becomes a vampire, Sang-hyun reconnects with a childhood friend, a sickly, annoying fellow named Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) who lives with his smothering mother and the former orphan his mother long ago took in, who’s since married Kang-woo. The young woman, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), is mousy and sulky at the start, but a desperate intensity rises in her as she and Sang-hyun connect.
Thirst refuses to be pinned down as a philosophical exploration, a bloody horror flick, a dark film noir or an occasionally darkly comedic vampire story. Sometimes the film meanders a bit, and sometimes the beauty of its more somber moments is too quickly swept away in a wash of red. But mostly there’s a frenetic grace to the way Park (Old Boy) plays with tone and laces brutal and ugly images into gorgeous frames. The film plays itself out in a tangle of blood, sex and violence — and a few bits of eerie humor, often courtesy of the soggy ghost of Sang-hyun’s only real victim. Sang-hyun’s story is one of moral contradiction: Can the good man continue to be good as a vampire, a being that lives only at the expense of others? Tae-ju, on the other hand, is the embodiment of desire and need given too much power and strength. Kim is more than convincing in her role; she’s horrifying, and not simply because of her furious bloodlust. She giggles and squeals and enjoys herself horribly, until her existence is a test of Sang-hyun’s resolve, and a question of what the good and right thing to do is. Does he love her? Did he take just take pity on her? Can he stop the bloodbath he’s started? In the film’s final images, lovely and taut with threat and fury, Tae-ju is a hurricane of fear, but at the eye of her storm is Sang-hyun, still and calm. The vampire and the priest, the murderer and the martyr — finally, impossibly, they coexist. At least for a moment.
Thirst opens at the Bijou Friday, Oct. 2