Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thirst

Sometimes it's the little details you remember the most. Shortly after becoming a vampire, our hero in Thirst (2009) gets his bloody fix from coma patients at the hospital. Thing is, he's not biting their necks; he's sucking their blood through IV tubes, which makes a kind of sense. Why bother puncturing the flesh if they've already got a release valve?

Thirst is another gloriously warped and violent movie from Korean director Park Chan-Wook, arguably one of the best and most idiosyncratic of filmmakers working today. His movies have a way of taking a common storyline - vampires, home invasion, revenge - and presenting them unconventionally and in unexpected ways. Often, his movies have strong elements of black humor and irony. All this accurately describes Thirst.

The movie begins with a good-hearted priest named Father Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), who volunteers for a medical experiment that exposes him to a deadly virus, but after a transfusion, he survives where everyone else has died. He makes a complete recovery, becoming thought of as a modern saint. Before long, he discovers he has a terrible thirst for blood and must seek shelter from sunlight. He has become a vampire and so begins his descent into depravity, which includes murder and sex.

Why a vampire would donate his or her own blood for use by a hospital, I have no idea. You'd think vampires would treat blood banks the way criminals treat banks but apparently not in Thirst. Maybe this generous vampire was a prankster. Or maybe the poor creature was lonely. Maybe it was a mistake. It's fun to think about.

Park loads the film with nice visual touches. Sang-hyun convinces his superior at the monastery (a blind man) of his condition by cutting open his chest and having him grip his heart. When Sang-hyun is tempted to bite the neck of a sleepwalking woman, the film shows her arteries just beneath her flesh. When he feeds on the coma patient, the camera tracks the tube from the man's arm, down past the bed until we see Sang-hyeon lying on the floor, his face still bandaged. Later, when Sang-hyun and Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) begin an affair, a sex scene is preceded by the two of them feeding on each other, one sucking the foot and the other sucking on a wrist; it's a kinky, perverse moment.

Let's be honest: many vampire stories are about sex and its alluring but dangerous thrill. Thirst makes this common subtext more explicit, bringing it to the forefront. Sang-hyun is a repressed, virginal priest who has never known women, but once he becomes a vampire, he finds he can't control any of his "sinful hungers," whether it be for blood or sex. Early on he tries resisting; he gets an erection and tries beating it down with a recorder. Later, the apparent waterlogged ghost of a murder victim gets between Sang-hyuan  and his sexual partner, and they amusingly try to ignore it.

Before long, lust turns to murder. Tae-ju is the wife of Sang-hyun's childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). Kang-woo himself is ill, and his mother Lady Ra (Have-suk Kim) is overbearing and domineering, so Tae-ju tries to convince Sang-hyun to kill her husband and transform her into a vampire (she even fakes physical abuse to further motivate him). This warped love triangle, along with Sang-hyun's increasing corruption as he indulges in his forbidden hungers, makes up the heart of the movie.

Thirst is more than two hours long, and it becomes a bit unwieldy in its last half hour. Once Sang-hyun kills Kang-woo (in an effective scene by taking him out on a boat and dragging him under water, so it mostly happens offscreen) and later learns the truth that he wasn't an abuser, the movie feels like it's over. Sang-hyun kills Tae-ju but decides to resurrect her, and the rest of the movie follows as he tries to keep her in line. She really enjoys being a vampire and killing. The movie reached a dramatic high point but kept going. This material feels more old-hat than the rest of the movie: the reluctant vampire and the relishing killer.

When the movie focuses on the relationship triangle and Sang-hyun's increasingly moral imbalance, Thirst is a wonderful modern vampire tale. It's not for the squeamish, but if you have the stomach for it, it's darkly humorous and twisted. Thirst bring fresh blood to an old genre.

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