Friday, 16 October 2009


It doesn't take Jacques Lacan to figure out that there has always been something strongly relgious about vampires: the vulnerability to the cross, the priest-like garb of the classic Dracula, the communion of blood into life eternal. In a genre which seems constantly reinventing itself, as I talked about on Radio Five Undead's Up All Night last week (see here) with new ideas like the lonely teenaged vampire of Let The Right One In, or the long-overdue discovery of the arctic's permanent dark in 30 Days Of Night, or even the sexual morality play of True Blood, the Korean film Thirst provides a remarkable new take on the life of the vampire.

In Chan-Wook Park's film, which won the Jury prize at the Cannes Festival this year, Kang-ho Song plays Sang-hyun, a priest who harbours doubts about his real value to humanity. He volunteers for martydom, going to Africa to act as a guinea pig for a vaccination against a deadly virus. He dies, but is immediately reborn in what is taken as a miracle. He returns to Korea a celebrity, before realising that his miracle has been, in fact, a transformation into a vampire. Arranging to feed himself on an overweight coma victim and from a hospital blood bank, he is approached by the mother of a childhood friend, seeking his help in curing her son. But the son has a wife, and she is looking to escape her prison-like existence.

At this point parallels with Therese Raquin become obvious, but no less effective. The girl, Tae-ju, played by Ok-vin Kim, was an orphan raised as her husband's sister, and she turns to Sang with tales of abuse and neglect, and with the temptations of the flesh he had previously always rejected, being sworn to chastity. But now that he is living on blood, succumbing to flesh seems almost a natural thing to do. The plot then ecompasses murder, but also Kim's desire to join Sang as a vampire, to indulge in the power and indulge her sensuality. In escaping her previous life, she has jumped into a new one, and dragged Sang along, to his horror.

This synopsis may seem interesting enough, but what makes the film so engrossing is the skill with which Park's direction plays with our expectations, and the way in which he manipulates
the screen to convey feelings. This shouldn't be a surprise from the director of such cult hits as Old Boy and Lady Vengeance, but this movie has a wider feel to it. There are still lovely little genre touches. Kisses and vampire sucking have the same sound; there are moments of high black comedy as a vampire in preist clothin climbs out a bathroom window like a character in a Feydeau farce. But Park constantly reinforces the thrust of the film, and keeps it on its path.Tae-ju, for example, literally takes on colour and life as she first indulges in 'sin' and then becomes a full-fledged vampire. The transformation is acted out brilliantly by Kim, who revels in the power of her sexuality. Meanwhile Song plays the priest with a sort of bewilderment that reflects the doubts he has about his own faith, in both God and humanity. And faith in humanity is tested; his friend's family's mah-jongg evenings resemble a Beckett play in their excrutiating discomfort, leading to some wonderfully absurdly moments as the ghost of Sang's murdered friend comes back to haunt the lovers.

In the end it is faith in humanity, or contempt for it, that has really been the demarcation line between humans and vampires in the genre's classics. As Tae-ju becomes more demanding the film becomes bloodier, and even more farcical, but Park's direction, and Sang's sombre playing, turn its last section into something like Panic In Needle Park (the junkie/vampire parallel has been noted before), or an undead They Shoot Horses Don't They. And the final scenes, shot like Antonioni might have shot them, are also cut with humour before ending on a touching and powerful note. This is filmmaking of the first order, and it's why I put Thirst into my ten-best list of Vampire films. It's also a shoo-in for my ten-best of the year.

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