When I found out I was going to be subjected to 133 minutes of Korean vampire movie at a 10 a.m. press screening, I was, to put it mildly, able to contain my joy. I know Korean horror movies are highly prized in some quarters, but the few I’ve seen haven’t convinced me that they aren’t in many ways prized more for simply not being in English than anything else. You know, the old sense of feeling culturally inferior to everyone else. Of course, when our idea of vampires is Twilight (2008) and Sweden’s is Let the Right One In (2008), it’s no longer a feeling, it is cultural inferiority. That, of course, doesn’t immediately mean that every foreign-language vampire movie is golden, but in the case of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst we’re at least in some pretty interesting territory.
Thirst isn’t in the same league as Let the Right One In. It is neither as radical a rethinking of the vampire myth, nor does it have the same kind of emotional impact. Park’s take on vampires is somewhat unusual in that the affliction is passed on to the main character, the Catholic priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho, The Host), by a tainted blood transfusion he receives in an effort to combat the effects of a medical experiment. Similarly, the fact that Park’s vampires have no fangs and rarely drink blood in the expected manner sets them apart, but none of this is without precedent.
The transfusion-created vampire dates back to Erle C. Kenton’s House of Dracula (1945). And much of what happens after Sang-hyeon becomes a vampire is essentially a reshuffling of Bram Stoker, especially once the film gets around to him turning a girl, Tae-joo (Kim Hae-sook), who had a childhood crush on him, into a vampire. We’re not very far removed—except in particulars—from Stoker’s Victorian terror of a sexually aggressive woman. In these regards, Thirst offers more an illusion of freshness than anything actually new. But the film’s merits don’t rely completely on these points.
What sets Park’s film apart from the standard vampire picture has more to do with its tone, characterizations, and its strange blend of lyricism and pitch-black comedy. The story itself is intriguing, with the idea of a priest tussling with his faith and sense of being ineffectual. It’s this that leads him to the experiment in question, his apparent death and return from the dead—a return that incites people to view him as a kind of savior, or at least a saint with curative powers. That this has also left him covered in unsightly blisters that cause him to go about bandaged like the Invisible Man is hardly coincidental, because the man himself has in essence become invisible and only the perceived miracle remains. Similarly, when he learns that drinking blood restores him to normalcy (except for that daylight problem), it’s more the man—a sexually voracious one at that—than the priest who is restored.
How deep any of this actually goes is open to debate, but it’s clear that Park has more on his mind than a simple vampire flick, though he wisely never forgets that he is making a horror movie. There’s no skimping on the bloodletting and scenes of horror. But Park handles all of this with black humor that’s laced with social critique—and a consciousness about our ability to rationalize even our darkest secrets. (At one point, Sang-hyeon justifies drinking the blood of a comatose hospital patient by citing a story the patient told him as proof that if the man were conscious, he’d offer his blood to him.)
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is the way Park ultimately blends horror and comedy to create an elegiac ending of no little fatalistic beauty. The true oddity of this is that the beauty is intermingled with touches of the purely absurd, which is both fascinating and a little bit distancing. It’s this aspect that keeps Thirst from attaining the emotional resonance it needs to linger in the mind the way that Let the Right One does. This isn’t the film’s only problem. A bigger concern is that the running time is just too much to be supported by what’s ultimately a fairly slender story, but don’t sell the movie short on either basis. This is one vampire movie that’s actually worth your while—imperfections and all. Rated R for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language.