Thanks to the overwhelming success of Twilight, it seems that everyone is making a vampire flick. If you every had an idea for a vampire film this is the time to make it as every studio seems to be attempting to riff off the success of the vampire craze. Some of the most surprisingly good stuff has come out of international cinema such as Let the Right One In. Thirst, Korean vampire flick from well-known director Park Chan-wook continues this trend of international vampire cinema.
The film bucks a lot of the conventional vampire stories, going for a tale about a priest named Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) who becomes a vampire after he becomes the test subject in a project trying to cure a deadly sickness. As he slowly becomes a creature of night he feels the conflict emerge between his spiritual upbringing and beliefs and this thirst for the blood of human beings. It also doesn’t help that his miraculous survival of the disease makes him this messianic figure among many of the people.
The film takes it time completing the entire transformation, subtlety dropping hints as to his change. Some are so subtle that I didn’t realize them until after the fact. Most of the times watching the transformation in a vampire film is either this almost instantaneous jump or an elongated process of the character stupidly ignoring all the signs. By exposing the priest to this disease, the film allows itself some plausibility in letting this character gradually understand that the nature of his transformation isn’t just some after effect of the desease.
And the idea of transforming this priest into a vampire is a brilliant one as it allows for all these nuanced conflicts. Priest in certain traditions are taught to repress many of their human urges and take a vow of celibacy. By transforming into a vampire his conflict becomes a metaphor for the desire of carnal pleasures, the pleasures he has taught himself to live without. It takes the idea of the conflicted vampire and gives it this perfectly succinct background that makes his dilemma plausible.
However, the film undercuts this brilliance by completely missing the entire idea of vampires as storytelling devices. Vampires biting people has long been held as a metaphor for sex but the film simply sees it as a source of nourishment. Instead, this priest must actually be enticed and taken in by actual sex, ruining the nuance and relative subtlety of the vampire metaphor by explicitly using sex throughout the film.
Yet this allows for a number of powerful scenes between Sang-hyeon and his lover. The almost wordless last five minutes of the film is one of the finest scenes of the year. There are a lot of similar understated moments where the film lets these great moments unfold and this interesting relationship evolve. And once the couple has committed a horrible crime together their haunting is this almost wordless persecution of an old presence.
Where the film is not as understated is in the violence. Park Chan-wook is well known for his use of violence and he certainly doesn’t shy away from any of it here. At its best, the film has this Hitchcockian edge where there’s this almost unbearable threat of violence. On the other end of the spectrum are a number gross out scenes involving decapitation, the expunging of various bodily fluids and a copious flow of blood. A lot of the visceral scenes of violence I found more off putting than effective.
There’s a lot of compelling material in Thirst but by taking the vampire subtext and making it explicit a lot of nuance is lost. If it had toned it back and left a lot to implication this would easily stand as one of the best vampire flicks of all time as the core conflict is brilliant. But the graphic sex and equally explicit violence makes the film a picture that lacks tact. In a lot of ways I feel like I had to put up with childish and crass filmmaking choices in an otherwise excellent picture.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing