Bakjwi (Thirst), Korea, 2009
They’re, like, so hot right now.
Admittedly most of this is due to the mind-boggling popularity of the Twilight saga, a series whose continued success remains a source of deep confusion and distress for this particular film-fan! Yet for the last twelve months or so, there seems to have been a considerable surge in vampirism in cinema. Luckily, for every emo vampire love story audiences also seem to be treated to an intelligent take on the vampire myth. First we had the wonderful Let the Right One In, and now Chan-wook Park has had the good sense to make Thirst.
Thirst begins with Park regular Kang-ho Song (also seen in this years spectacularly fun The Good, The Bad and The Weird) as priest Sang-hyun desperately, and often unsuccessfully, trying to heal his sick patients. He volunteers in a programme to find a cure for a fatal illness known as the Emmanuel Virus (EV). He travels to Africa to take part in the experiment, where he is subject an infected blood transfusion. After a near fatal encounter, he returns to Korea, slowly discovering his newly inherited vampirism, and begins feeding on the blood of his comatose patients through their IV drips. He then falls in love with a woman stuck in a loveless marriage. Think Twilight, but infinitely more fucked-up, with explicit sex scenes and graphic violence.
I won’t go any further in-depth into the plot, because most of the pleasure in this film is derived from the unexpected turns it often takes. At a basic level, the vampirism presented in the film is shown as a parasitic disease, as in many of the classic vampire stories. What makes the film interesting, though, is how the characters react to the disease. Sang-hyun, as a Catholic priest, is a moralistic character, unwilling to kill to feed his bloodlust, which is a radical deviation from the Nosferatu myth. It is a fascinating take on vampire mythology, the characters more human than monster. Like Let the Right One In, the film excels in fleshing out the characters while remaining loyal to the classic vampire symbolism. Sunlight still burns, and the infected are remarkably agile creatures.
this is an extremely rich and controversial film. Issues such as
religion, morality and African healthcare are bound to offend some, but
this is a no-holds barred film, as is to be expected from the man who
gave us demented masterpieces like Oldboy. The violence
is brutal, and it is the first Korean film to feature full frontal male
nudity. However, despite the extreme nature of the content, it is
fascinating and intelligent viewing. The characterisation is top-notch,
the narrative engaging and the humour typically dark. It is simply a
fresh and exciting take on a well-explored genre. At its heart, there is
a lyrical love story, that is occasionally sweet and occasionally
twisted. This unusual romance acts as a solid backbone to the other
thematic focuses and subplots.
For a director known for his visual extravagances (see the colourful excesses of I’m A Cyborg)
the cinematography of Thirst is surprisingly muted, with the exception
of some pleasant final act flourishes. This helps give the film a more
personal feel. Indeed, overall Thirst is mostly character-driven, with a
relatively small cast of characters. Park invests a lot of time into
these people, and it builds to a poignant conclusion – which is also
pretty damn funny. One issue I had with the film was a slightly dull
fifteen minutes or so as it shifted into a darker third act. However,
once the new thematic focus becomes clear, the ending is extremely
rewarding, and felt like one of the most natural conclusions I’ve seen
to a film in quite a while.
As you can probably tell, I rather liked Thirst. Park is a rare director who seems able to juggle emotionally involving stories, extreme violence, dark humour and genre inventiveness and emerge with a coherent, successful final product. It is a damn shame that this isn’t going to get a wide release when certain angsty nonsense is due once again to pollute screens (good looks win over subtitles, apparently). But Chan-wook Park reminds us that vampires aren’t all just baseball-loving dullards. Thirst is a wonderfully contemporary vampire film, one full of darkness, humour and energy. Oh, and plenty of weird-ass sex and revolting bodily mutilation. What more could you possibly want?