With the latest installment of the Twilight saga, New Moon, vampires are all the rage in Hollywood and across America. People who would never go to a more traditional horror movie are rushing to the theater to see New Moon, choosing Team Jacob or Team Edward or swooning over the love between Edward and Bella. Anything Twilight is a hot commodity these days and Hollywood is taking advantage of it. While horror and vampire purists may avoid Twilight, they are also reaping some rewards from it’s popularity. Vampire movies are running in heavy rotation on cable and series such as Moonlight and Nick Knight are being resurrected for TV, getting more exposure as everyone tries to cash in on the vampire craze. If Twilight has done no other good it has at least allowed these classic series to temporarily raise from the grave and seek a new audience. In the midst of this undead frenzy, a new vampire movie comes to us from South Korea.
Thirst is the newest film from South Korean director Chan-Wook Park. Park is best know for his revenge trilogy, especially his second film in the series Oldboy. Oldboy is a very violent but very beautiful film with an extremely disturbing storyline. Thirst is a welcome addition to the vampire genre with all of Park’s violence and beauty intact. Like Twilight, Thirst takes a new twist on the vampire legend. Also like Twilight there is a love affair between the vampire protagonist and a female character. However aside from this there is little in common between the two films.
Sang Kang-ho stars as a caring priest, Sang-hyun who isn’t content to just minister to the dying. He begs the Vatican to allow him to volunteer for a controversial experiment to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus known as EV. San-hyun is injected with the virus and slowly succumbs to it. Unknowingly to the priest he is given a blood transfusion from a vampire and although clinically dead, he is revived and begins to quickly recover from the virus. Due to his recovery he starts to gain fame as a healer and people flock around him begging for him to pray for them. As a healer he is reunited with a child hood friend and his wife and mother. The wife Tae-ju, is beautiful but seems very repressed. Soon after this the virus starts to reappear and he notices his vampiric tendencies come to light. He develops a thirst for and attraction to blood as well as a painful reaction to sunlight. He also finds that human blood causes the virus to go into remission and increases his strength and vigor. Still a very moral man he refuses to murder and resorts to stealing blood donations to quench his thirst.
Meanwhile he is growing ever closer to Tae-ju. He begins to lust for her as his vampire side exerts more and more control over him. The two eventually begin a very erotic love affair and Sang-hyun confess both the fact that he still carries the deadly disease and that he has become a vampire. The fact that he is a vampire intrigues Tae-ju and she begins to see a way out of her unhappy life. Though Sang-hyun is reluctant to share his vampire blood, she finally coerces him into turning her into a vampire with disastrous results.
While not as fast paced as Oldboy, Thirst is every bit as bloody. Even as Sang-hyun tries to avoid any unnecessary loss of life, the body count grows. The killings are gruesome but for the most part very believable. Necks are snapped and bodies punctured in abundance as the former priest slips farther from humanity. His new found apprentice shows little concern for human life and murders viciously. In another step away from traditional vampire lore, the undead here have no fangs, which makes their killings seem even more real and brutal. In some ways it could be argued that the vampires of Twilight are closer to a traditional vampire than those in Thirst. The only real weakness shown in Thirst is their inability to walk in sunlight. Stakes never make an appearance or are mentioned and the vampires simply shrug off any other damage and heal rapidly. Sang-hyun continues to act as a priest after he is turned, praying and administering rites, until he renounces his faith and even wears a cross and enters the church. Still traditional fans will most likely feel more kinship to the vampires in Thirst than the sparkly, angst ridden undead of the Twilight universe. Thirst is a much more grown up story that drops the fairy tale romance of Bella and Edward for a much for explicit and adult romance between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju. Even as Sang-hyun tries to cling to his humanity we see him slowly becoming less human as he indulges in all his carnal cravings. His recognition of this loss of humanity, leads to him making the heroic but tragic decision at the end of the film.
While this is firmly a horror movie it is also a very erotic and adult love story. The films sex scenes are hot and delve into fetishism in a way that serious American films are reluctant to touch. The scenes are not played for humor or shock value nor do they seem overly gratuitous. Instead they seem more a natural progression of the protagonist. As he becomes more and more distant from his life as a priest, he indulges more in the sins of the flesh that were forbidden to him due to his vows. A couple of the scenes, such as the armpit licking, could have devolved into sick humor, but Park’s film elevates it to true arousing erotica. There is quite a bit of nudity, both male and female. In another departure from American film, the male nudity is actually more graphic than the female. Like the sex the nudity never seems pushed and for the most part seems important to the film, not just tossed in for titillation.
The director also manages to inject a bit of humor into the film at places. The comedy is very subtle and never overwhelms the horror but instead acts to temper it. Thirst would be a very dark film with these touches of humor to lighten it, even though the humor is dark itself. The watcher might not laugh aloud during the film but chances are they might have to stifle a laugh or two during the film.
The acting is good all around, both by the two leads and the supporting cast. The film, like park’s other efforts is visually beautiful. Horror fans will love the amount of blood spilt and the violence onscreen. Those fans expecting a Korean version of Twilight could possibly walk away with deep emotional scars so beware Team Edward. The film does have it’s weak points one of them being the effects. While the fight scenes and murders do look good, the wire work leaves much to be desired. It is just a little too obvious in some of the flying scenes and reminded me a bit too much of Crouching Tiger. The story can also be very confusing to American audiences, especially those not used to Asian film. Asian cinema has a history of convoluted storylines and while this one is fairly simple as Asian horror goes, you can get lost if not careful. The movie seems most confusing near the beginning when the lead first becomes infected. There was never any indication of why or how he was infused with vampire blood. The only way a viewer is likely to know this is that Sang0hyun mentions it to his superior after his vampire powers start to appear.
Still even with its flaws it is a very good movie and a very welcome addition to the vampire genre. New Moon with its legion of fans will make much more money, but true horror and vampire fans should check out this movie. Although it doesn’t surpass the director’s opus Oldboy, it is a solid effort from Chan-wook Park Thirst is available on DVD as of Nov 17 2009 in widescreen in Korean DD5.1 and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Extras fans may be disappointed as the initial release has little to offer in this regard.