Thirst, the new film by Hitchcock virtuoso, Korean director Chan-wook Park, chronicles a love affair that’s tainted from the beginning and not just because it involves a Priest who becomes a Vampire.
Over the years vampires have been used for a hefty amount of serious metaphors, from the original undying love of Bram Stoker’s creation to the teen angst of Edward Cullen from the Twilight series, to Allan Ball’s “coming out” creations on his hit HBO series True Blood. Park, though, has a way, like Tarantino, of bending a genre to his whims in ways that defy even the best stories out there (such as any of the above) and burning visual moments into your retina that will stick with you until you die.
This particular story follows a Priest, Sang-hyeon who offers himself as a test subject for a medical experiment. Boils appear on his skin and everything inside of him goes mushy. Red blood pouring out of the holes of a white wooden flute never looked so poetic. As he lies on his death bed, he’s given a blood transfusion. He dies, and moments later reawakens. A few days later when the boils from the test begin to reappear, so does his thirst for fresh blood. But he’s a Priest, and can’t bring himself to kill a human being. He finds other ways, involving the random and unnecessary story of a cake, that leads to one of the best jokes in the film.
Meanwhile, everyone sees him as a miracle sent from God. People want him to heal their families and friends. He begrudgingly accepts to see a Cancer patient. Not long after his blessing the man-child’s cancer disappears, and the Priest realizes he knows the family from when he was a child. The young man-child and his Mother are cruel, in an evil stepmother sort of way, to a budding woman that has lived with them since she was a child, and who has now been forced to marry the belligerent man-child. This beautiful, seemingly shy vixen Tae-joo, disappears at night and runs through the streets in her bare feet, dreaming only to get away.
It’s not long before Sang’s and Tae’s unspoken passion leads to an awkward coupling, in which we see that Tae isn’t as innocent as she appears. Tae finds out about Sang’s vampirism, and flees. Sang in a hilarious moment of desperation leaps up to her bathroom window to tell her how much he loves her and it shouldn’t matter that he’s a Vampire.
I won’t ruin what happens when she finally accepts him and what leads up to that, but the performances and Park’s skillful direction creates some of the most awe-inspiring, joyful, and exhilarating moments of two people falling in love that I’ve seen in a long while. It’s sudden and erupts across their faces and in the “how did they do that” skillful camerawork that can hardly be controlled. It’s a good beginning that quickly goes sour, and doesn’t only become a dark metaphor for relationships between two people whose true natures are completely opposite, but actually becomes one of those relationships. The vampirism of course being the urge to act out on those natures, the need to allow those passions and desires to control who you are and what you do.
The film handles all of these situations with a brisk joviality, never becoming too selfserious. To the point where the movie threatens to become lost in a surreal and absurd twist that wouldn’t have worked if Park didn’t embrace it 100%. In America they would have tried to scare you, Park is content with letting you watch with a strange smile on your face as these two souls are tortured by what they’ve done. No matter how over board he goes Park has a way of constantly surprising.
One thing Hitchcock loved to do was to, no matter how creepy and horrifying things got, keep everything that happened related to a part of the character’s psyche. For instance, it wasn’t actually Norman Bates’s dead mother come back from the dead. So it’s funny when one of the characters repeats to himself “This is all psychological”, when he knows it is and maybe isn’t…after all he is a Vampire!
There are images and moments in Thirst, as there have been with every Park film I’ve seen (Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance being two of my favorites), that have been burned into my head and will remain there forever. It’s the sign of a true filmmaker. One that no matter how nasty the characters get in Thirst, he still sees the humanity in both of them, and that’s why it works so well.