The 2000s started out pretty well for vampire film and TV. Most obviously we had Buffy and Angel, but there were also interesting little films like Shadow of the Vampire
and franchises like Blade, the Anne Rice adaptations and, um, Dracula 2000
. However after that, things went off the boil a bit. We got things like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing and the BloodRayne and Underworld films. Ironically the genre has recently become huge again, with TV series and of course the Twilight movies, but if we're talking about important genre entries rather than films that have made a lot of money then there are two recent standouts. They're both foreign-language films: Let The Right One In
(Sweden, 2008) and Thirst (Korea, 2009).
Thirst doesn't have the international profile of Let The Right One In
, but it's got a bigger-name director. South Korea's movie industry has gone ballistic over the last decade and Park Chan-wook is its most famous name. He's a director, screenwriter, producer and film critic, best known for his vengeance trilogy of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy
and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. However obviously he's done other films too, such as Joint Security Area
and today's movie, Thirst.
What makes this one unusual is that it's a loose adaptation, not of Stoker or Le Fanu but of an 1867 Emile Zola novel. I haven't read it myself, but we're talking about French literature rather than horror and definitely nothing that was meant to be about vampires. The result is a slightly awkward but serious and deeply unpredictable movie that's ignoring the usual genre formulae and exploring some really uncomfortable places. It's not hard to watch because it's extreme. Park Chan-wook is perfectly capable of that, e.g. Oldboy
. No, what makes it stronger than almost all vampire films is the fact that it's literature in which the lead character happens to be a vampire, so you've got real emotional depth and characterisation going on even while our hero's sawing people's feet off.
As an example, you know how vampire films will often have vampire sex scenes? These will be rubbish. They'll be dramatically empty and entirely driven by voyeurism, whether we're talking about Jean Rollin or straight-to-DVD lesbian porn starring Misty Mundae. Park Chan-Wook breaks that rule and it's fairly uncomfortable to watch, since there's so much physical, emotional and psychological strain on our protagonist that you'll have absolutely no idea when things might suddenly turn really, really bad. You're invested in the characters in a way you just don't get with vampire films, which means that Park doesn't need buckets of blood to get you pre-emptively cringing.
Our hero (played by Kang-ho Song) is a Catholic priest. He looks like a good one, too. He's a nice guy, he ministers to the sick and he volunteers to be a guinea pig in a scary medical experiment. He ends up being infected with vampirism as one might be with AIDS, but what's interesting is that this doesn't turn him evil. On the contrary, he tries to maintain his moral compass. He discusses his condition with his bishop! He has new desires, which unfold in a way that look a lot like addiction, and in some ways he's coming alive in ways that he's never known before. All this is great. It's fascinating material of a kind that, for obvious reasons, one doesn't normally get in vampire films. There's no explanation of why he doesn't burst into flames as soon as he puts on his crucifix every morning, but then again Park is also careful to show us Kang-ho Song's reflection in mirrors even as all the other traditional rules are being obeyed (daylight, etc.).
All this early stuff is very accessible. It's fairly extreme, but because of emotional honesty and storytelling rather than gore. Kang-ho Song gets involved with a family who regard him as one of their own, including a slightly creepy young lady with understandable issues. After that, things get complicated.
Later on, the film gets a teensy bit arty. Once we're past the original set-up and into Zola's plot, Park chooses to add a touch of disjointedness. There's something that may or may not be rubber reality. You won't always be sure if what you're seeing is a hallucination, dream, ghost or revenant. The characters' emotional journeys become a little staccato, with a more impressionistic style and a certain amount of connecting story tissue being left to audience inference. Mind you, apparently there's a director's cut that's twelve minutes longer, so maybe that feels different? Everything in those early passages of the film can be understood immediately, but some later sections feel to me as if you'd want a second viewing to feel completely at ease with where the characters are going at any given moment. However the good news is that I'm merely talking about a subtle question of style in what's at all times a solid and well-told story. Maybe it drifts a little in the middle of the third act, comparatively speaking, but it pulls it back for the mah-jong.
Thematically it's fascinating. You've got people following the priest around as if he's Jesus and it's certainly true that he can perform miracles. You've got his vows of chastity. You've got the symbolism of the shoes. You've got the way in which horror imagery can represent a physical expression of guilt, while also perhaps being literally true. You've got analogies with the victims of incurable diseases, both from a modern and a Biblical point of view. There's even a bit where the film turns into Spider-Man
, although it's not as crass as that sounds.
The acting's all excellent. I'd last seen Kang-ho Song as the Weird in The Good The Bad The Weird
, but he transforms himself so completely that I had to check online to be sure of that. Then there's Ok-bin Kim, who's weird, creepy and full of different kinds of energy. I see she was also in Dasepo Naughty Girls
(2006), which is an absolute must-see because I've seen the photos. Oh, they're work-safe. They're just insane. Google it. Anyway, this is the kind of cast you'd want for a film like this, taking their roles as seriously as if it's literature (which it is) while also being prepared to push the boat out as is right and necessary for a Park Chan-Wook vampire film.
It's a long film. You could end it two-thirds of the way through and you'd have a perfectly good movie, although you'd be missing out. It earns its length. You can't fault Park for intensity, although occasionally the film's also funny, e.g. the car gags at the end. There's very little that's French about it, but I did notice the accents on the African doctors in charge of the medical experiment. I think the last word belongs to Park himself... "This film was originally called The Bat to convey a sense of horror. After all, it is about vampires. But it is also more than that. It is about passion and a love triangle. I feel that it is unique because it is not just a thriller and not merely a horror film, but an illicit love story as well."
This won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, by the way. I need to watch more Korean movies.