Fangless grins: “Thirst”
Thirst is not a vampire flick, is not a horror film, is sort of a really funny black comedy and ultimately is, certainly, a lunatic love story. In it a Catholic priest named Sang-Hyun travels to Africa and volunteers for a medical experiment, accepting a blood transfusion that infects him with a deadly virus in the hopes of facilitating the discovery of a cure. The rest of the test subjects die, but Sang-Hyun survives as a sort of vampire, hungry for blood and vulnerable to sunlight.
His vampirism circumvents his apparent martyr-complex–he’s now unable to die, much less for a cause, and instead of martydom he achieves status as a miracle, sought after as a faith-healer. His vampirism comes with superpowers including heightened senses (fanged teeth sold separately), senses that drive his infatuation with Tae-Ju, a friend’s mistreated wife, to new and uncontrollably lustful territory.
Sang-Hyun, like most Catholics, satisfies his new thirsts by balancing his satiation with equal parts guilt and negotiated morality; he only drinks blood from over-weight coma patients, and he feels much more OK fucking Tae-Ju knowing that he’s saving her from an abusive husband who is bad in bed. Sang-Hyun’s sexual and vampiric awakenings are as perverted (Tae-Ju’s words, not mine) and unsettling as they are awkwardly funny. Kinda like everybody’s first time, except, you know, with vampires.
During their first tryst, Tae-Ju discovers she likes being injured during sex as much as Sang-Hyun likes biting her, and so they enter an affair distinct for its symbiosis. Director Park Chan-Wook creates a number of cool visuals to express this, most notably the two lovers sucking blood out of each other’s wrist, hungry, murderous and horny, funny and frightening all at the same time.
Of course, I didn’t expect Chan-Wook’s Thirst to be any type of typical vampire flick. I did, however, expect a meditation on the dark themes the genre raises, given the stark reflections Chan-Wook achieved with his vengeance trilogy. Although Thirst definitely isn’t, thankfully, merely a quirky take on a typical vampire movie, the movie jerkily shifts gears and tones a number of times to the point where it often appears aimless.
Sang-Hyun eventually turns Tae-Ju, but he gets more than he bargained for. As a vampire, Tae-Ju has none of Sang-Hyun’s guilt issues and has absolutely no problem hunting people for food. “It tastes better that way,” she insists. Tae-Jun embodies any number of male projections onto female sexuality, to the point where her quaint though constructed domestic arrangement with Sang-Hyun turns uncontrollable and flat out insane. Metaphorically, Tae-Ju’s chapped feet, the result of her running aimless through the night to escape her horrible day-time life, heal themselves; already lacking the essential qualification for martyrdom, Sang-Hyun’s new adopted role of male saviour similarly becomes obsolete.
Though all of this sounds great, Thirst is never quite as awesome as its premise. Tae-Jun’s character moves from meek victim to insatiable vixen, but the film seems as confused by her as does poor Sang-Hyun. Thirst for sure is a fresh, entertaining take on exhausted material, but unlike the cohesively funny and dark Oldboy or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the laughs don’t turn darker the more we look at them, and the story never quite gels with its own sinister implications.