Repression can make you do some crazy things, so can love. That is the interpretation I made when I saw the 2009 Park Chan-wook horror film, Thirst.
Set in South Korea, it follows Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest who undergoes an experiment to find a vaccine for the deadly Emmanuel Virus. Like most "scientific experiments" in horror films it goes terribly wrong, and during a blood transfusion, Sang-hyun becomes a vampire. Yes, with no rhyme or reason he becomes a blood-sucking, nocturnal, super-strengthed, child of darkness. Sang-hyun's life takes a lust filled turn when he meets up with a childhood friend and starts an affair with his wife, Tae-ju.
Now that all parties concerned are caught up to speed, I am not surprised that this movie won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Park Chan-wook is a visionary, taking some of the tired old tropes of vampire and breathed new life into it. Right off the proverbial bat, he plunges film goers into the world of vampirism with no explanation.
Sang-hyun doesn't know how it happens, or from whom the blood came from he just knows that: sunlight burns, blood tastes good, has heightened senses, superhuman strength, and increased agility. Throwing the viewer into the world of darkness so haphazardly allows wiggle room for fans of vampire-lore to come up with theories of their own. This is the kind of speculation which tickles my cranium and makes me want to dig a little deeper.
Speaking of trying new things with creatures that go bump-in-the-night, Park Chan-wook also treats vampiric existence as more of a contractable disease. South Korean vampires turn others by putting their infected fluids directly into their bloodstream. Could this be an allegory for STD's? is vampirism less of a call to damnation and more of a life-long burden to health like HIV? (which cannot be cured but merely managed)
According to Sang-hyun, being a vampire is a curse, a punishment from God for his faithlessness as well as his lust and subsequent act of adultery with Tae-ju. In his mind, vampirism is a demonic compulsion. His thirst for blood and sexual desire for Tae-ju are sins which he cannot help but succumb to, and he inevitably hates himself for it.
Also, like most vampire romance stories, the blood-sucking beau must turn the damsel into his eternal bride. This is where dualistic themes of the film genuinely shine. Tae-ju is caught in an annoying and emotionally abusive marriage with a boorish fool, both of them living with his overbearing mother who dotes on him as if he were still a toddler. Her affair and eventual turn from the weak woman caught in a loveless marriage; to empowered femme-fatal of the night was one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. At first, she is frightened by Sang-hyun's "disease" but becomes all the more fascinated by it. She wishes to turn into a vampire, and in a fatal twist of fate, Sang-hyun is given no choice.
The dualism mentioned above lies in how Sang-hyun and Tae-ju are mirror images of each other. Sang-hyun hates his vampirism and does everything he can to assimilate to human society, Tae-ju loves hers and slowly begins to view humans as merely food. It is this push-and-pull, this tit-for-tat where the philosophical push of the film truly lies. Another thing that is worthy of appreciation about this couple, amidst all of the fantastical, is their believeability.
One thing about most paranormal romance stories is that one never sees a couple that is believable. Yes, it is all fantasy, but it would be nice to see a coupling that hangs in the realm of realism. Thirst does this correctly, Sang-hyun is a rather average looking man, with no striking aesthetic characteristics. Also, it would have been so easy just to cast a woman that looks like she just got off of recording a Korean Pop music video. Instead, she is cuter than anything else. Just a simple observation.
I could go on and on about Thirst but why not see it for yourself instead? This is indeed a gem from the East that turns the vampire-mythos on its head.
Oh, and one more thing. Did you know that this was the first mainstream Korean film to have full frontal male nudity in it? I guess its true what they say; you learn something new every day.