Any fan of Park Chan-Wook knows he has style. Old Boy has a wonderfully elaborate plot with a neat twist at the end but what really grabs is the direction. Every scene and shot shows a calculated style that impresses and makes familiar genres feel revitalised.
What would he do with horror? Vampire films are a sub-genre undergoing resurgence but still trading on the familiar tropes of eroticism. Thirst, instead, takes an unsentimental look into the life of a vampire. It is this that gives the film a strong identity as it explores themes of guilt and morality from the perspective of the vampire. There are none of the traditional vampire motifs or gothic atmosphere as this movie takes place in modern Seoul.
A devout priest, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-Ho) seems to be suffering a crisis of faith that affects him early on in the film. He seeks martyrdom to escape this crisis, leading to him to an experiment for a vaccine in Africa which could be near fatal.
He does die but undergoes a Lazarus-like resurrection. Unfortunately, he has been infected by tainted a vampiric element – something that gives him edge of believability fantastical powers – he is stronger and can leap long distances.
The downside? The disease causes pustules to emerge on his body. The only way to make the pustules (temporarily) disappear is to consume blood. That wouldn’t be so bad; he works in a hospital and feeds on coma victims but worse is to come when he encounters Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), wife of a childhood friend. She becomes the focus of once latent desires and temptations.
Initially he spends the first part of the film struggling with his bloodlust but his desires soon pose a threat and raise the question as to whether the tainted blood awoke his immoral side or if he’s using the disease as an excuse.
Having a priest become a vampire seems novel. The effect is that, initially his morality prevents him from committing the base acts one tends to associate with vampires until Tae-ju makes him cross his moral boundary.
Kim Ok-bin is mesmerising as the manipulative Tae-ju, cause of much of Sang-hyun’s guilt. She is a beautiful young woman who transforms from dowdy brow-beaten housewife to slinking, sexy, seductress once released by Sang-hyun. Her different belief system sees her embrace vampirism and all of the familiar tropes and makes her the perfect foil for Sang-hyun.
The arguments that stem from their mutual takes on guilt and morality are interesting and funny, usually taking place amidst casual violence or during an amusing roof-top chase. What the split between the two shows is that she is the only one to accept her fate and utilise her powers, becoming voracious both in her hunger for blood and sexual gratification. Guilt does not hinder her.
To top it off the final scene is both touching and amusing, making Thirst my favourite vampire film as Park Chan-Wook has found a new angle and revitalised it.