(2009) dir. Chan-wook Park
Vampires, vampires, vampires. They’re everywhere these days.
But Chan-wook Park’s vampire film, Thirst, is a far cry from the tween-friendly vampires of the Twilight (2008) series. Chan-wook Park is the mastermind/director behind the “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)), so his take on anything is probably worth noting.
Thirst develops a very different kind of vampire, a priest who sacrifices himself to a leprosy-like illness medical test, and becomes infected both with the illness and with vampirism. He’s a noble type, who only drinks blood from people who won’t notice, trying to maintain his goodness. He’s also perceived by zealots to be quite Christ-like and capable of curing people by prayer.
His strange journey brings him to a family that he’d known as a child, a doting, cruel mother, with her beloved but runny-nosed dope of a son, who is married to the repressed adopted daughter, Tae-joo (played with great verve and slyness by Ok-vin Kim), that he’d grown up with. This weird family unit is made worse by the meeting of the “Father” vampire.
What really happens is a The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) sort of plan to kill the Tae-joo’s husband and for Father Sang-hyeon and her to marry. So, in a common parallel, bloodlust equated with sexual awakening, the priest, a man of goodness, not just God, becomes the adulterer and ultimately murderer. His hunger for blood he mostly keeps in check, still draining blood from hospital patients without their knowledge, but he doesn’t realize what the murder would do.
The murder unhinges both Sang-hyeon and Tae-joo, with Shakespearean yet quite comical visions of the waterlogged husband. These visions literally impede their relationship, coming between them in bed and in intercourse. Tae-joo, who has less moral bearing, having lived a life of mild familial abuse, ultimately taunts Sang-hyeon into killing her. He then infuses her with his vampire blood, bringing her back to life, but she is a bitter, ruthless, angry and tortured soul who recognizes that they are no longer human. And deciding that that is both a curse and an empowerment.
Chan-wook Park always keeps it interesting. There is a lot going on, about morality, love, vengeance, and life. Sang-hyeon retains his belief in hell and the afterlife, while Tae-joo believes in nothingness. And their love is no cure for their crime or guilt or madness. Their love is a tragi-comedy, with a little more destruction than happiness.
I don’t think that Park has bested himself here, as Oldboy is still his most interesting film, but this furthers proof that he is a writer/director whose work is constantly challenging and unusual. And though in a litany of current vampire films, one might refer to this as the “Korean vampire film”, it’s much more than that, another solid and engaging film (not by any means flawless) by one of the more consistently interesting directors working today.