Monday, August 3, 2009

Who needs sparkle when you can have good old fashioned horror show?

I realize that part of the point of the Twilight books is that the existence of vampires and werewolves in the story is, well, not the point of Twilight. Which is why it amuses me greatly to see studios bending over backwards to lure fans of that series to other stories - real (or at least more traditional) vampire stories and wolf stories - that they almost certainly will not enjoy. (Case in point - for shame, Lions Gate.)

One good thing that has come out of the "sparkly vampire" renaissance, however - for me, at least - is that it has refueled my affection for those "real" vampire stories. Stuff like Near Dark and The Lost Boys and Let the Right One In and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Movies that are on dozens of blogs right now as part of dozens of lists of vampire stories to get into besides Stephanie Meyers' series.

And the latest comes from South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, who brought us the exceedingly painful and thought-provoking trilogy of revenge films - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. His most recent celluloid venture is Thirst, a fairly unique and engrossing (emphasis on the "gross") take on the genre. This film is not as cerebral as his revenge flicks - in some parts it's even downright silly - but that's okay, because vampires are supposed to be kind of fun, in my opinion.

Sang-hyeon is a priest. Virtuous without being off-puttingly pious, serving as a chaplain at a local hospital, and so self-sacrificing in his concern for other people that he volunteers to be a test subject to help develop a vaccination for an infection, knowing that all of the previous test subjects have died. Unsurprisingly, he dies as well, but the twist is that the blood transfusion that brings him back to life infects him in a different way, though we don't know what that is right away.

He returns to his village and is revered as a saint, but there are some complications. His skin starts to burn from the sunlight coming through his window one morning, and he finds himself unable to resist the urge to drink blood. Yep, he's a vampire. He desperately doesn't want to kill anyone, so he takes to stealing transfusion bags. And blood isn't the only thing he turns out to be thirsty for. He reunites with an old childhood friend and joins his family for a weekly Mah Jong game, but he is soon drawn into a torrid affair with the friend's wife, Tae-Ju, who is stuck in an unhappy marriage with her manchild of a husband.

Much as Park's revenge trilogy was a philosophical meditation on, well, revenge, I see Thirst as a meditation on the traditional lore of vampirism and what it might mean to a real person who finds himself in such a situation. A much less cerebral and serious subject, but one that really lends itself well to metaphor. The whole idea of a vampire's bloodlust being a "thirst" makes me think of an alcoholic, and that's a rather apt comparison for Sang-hyeon's condition. His addiction leads him to increasingly risky and, oh yeah, sinful as hell (literally) behavior. He still, however, very much has his soul, and though he's thrown his vows as a priest pretty much out the window to give in to his desires, he at least still feels guilt. There's at least that much of a human being left in him.

This is a really gorgeous looking film, as well as quite bloody and gross, and no one who has seen Park's other films should expect anything less on either count. There are a few rather intense sex scenes, one of them uncomfortably lengthy (though discomfort is perhaps the point). And one of many high points in the film is an absurd sequence where Sang-hyeon and Tae-Ju are haunted by the apparition of a character who has recently been killed. I don't know that I've ever seen a more clear (or more hilarious) picture of the effects of deep guilt.

There's a definite inevitability about the ending, but Park and his actors make it memorable and original (and even, I dare say, romantic). This may not be as "think-y" as his previous work, but it's still a very thoughtful exploration on the concept of vampirism. I still prefer Let the Right One In, but this is an interesting and entertaining addition to the vampire canon.

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