Let another one in: Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" feeds a hunger for vampire films. (Photo courtesy Focus Features)

'Thirst' and the Vampire Genre Still Bleeding

Dennis Harvey August 7, 2009

It was neck-and-neck there with zombies for a while, but in the wake of Twilight mania and escalating True Blood, it is safe to say vampires are the It Ghoul of our cultural moment. The zombie thing made sense in terms of general apocalyptic thought trends (2012, global warming, look-who’s-nuking-now, etc.). Still, the commingling of sex, violence and morbidity inherent in vampirism can always wrestle just about any other supernatural myth to the mat, popular appeal-wise.

The question is, with this particular undead feeding frenzy looking like there’s no end in imminent sight, can our creators of film, TV and lit find ways to pump new blood into the genre?

The answer is oh yes they can, and the evidence opened here last Friday in the form of Thirst—a title already used by several prior vampire movies, including one from Australia and another from Planet Porn. But surely none were much like this latest effort from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, he of the celebrated revenge trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. We’ve learned to expect inspired filmmaking and potent narrative ideas from him, yet Thirst still comes as a surprise for its vigorously original take on vampire operatics.

Actually the screenplay Park co-wrote with Jeong Syo-gyeong can’t be credited as entirely original, since it’s inspired by (of all things) Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Therese Raquin. But in using vampirism to make an amour fou romance truly, monstrously black-comedic, Park & co. really do unearth some fresh twists for the genre.

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a young Catholic priest whose willingness to make sacrifices for others takes an extreme turn when he volunteers to test a possible vaccine against a deadly virus. Traveling to Africa, he’s quarantined with others, exposed to the disease (which produces ugly skin boils) and given the experimental transfusion. As with everyone else, it fails—he dies. Unlike everyone else, however, he mysteriously revives a few minutes later.

News of this "miracle" travels back to Korea, where sick pilgrims beg the bewildered survivor for curative blessings upon his return. He isn’t cured himself, however; the disease relapses. It’s only when Sang-hyun begins experiencing odd phenomena (sunlight burns him, etc.) that he realizes it can be kept at bay by drinking human blood.

This is naturally appalling to a man of God. Our hero struggles to find ways he can feed his "habit" without hurting anyone—luckily, his rounds include visiting patients at a local hospital, where blood can be found without actually puncturing someone’s throat. Meanwhile, he’s got another sin to feel guilty about, having fallen into a passionately sexual affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). She’s the wife of Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), Sang-hyun’s lost-lost childhood friend. He becomes friends again with their whole family, though Tae-ju hardly shares that friendly attitude: An adopted orphan, she bitterly resents being married off to the "idiot" son and treated like a servant (when not drunkenly slapped around) by her mother-in-law (Kim Hae-sook).

To reveal more would spoil the many clever surprises in store once Thirst gets past its slow, methodical first chapters to the increasingly manic, blood-soaked later ones. Suffice it to say we learn giving the gift of eternal life can be a big mistake, since not every vampire convert is as conscientious about minimizing harm as still-pious Sang-hyun.

Reportedly the first Korean movie to feature full-frontal nudity, and the first real horror film to win a Cannes Jury Prize (shared this spring with Andrea Arnold’s U.K. drama Fish Tank), Thirst is as precisely crafted as it is gleefully over-the-top in content both carnal and carnivorous. While for me there was a brief spell about two-thirds of the way when the story’s outre machinations risked self-canceling overkill, things revive for a memorable last act that justifies the nearly 2 1/2-hour running time. Who’d have thought we’d get another equally smart, unconventional, non-pulpy take on vampire lore so soon after Let the Right One In?