It’s no secret that people these days have a hankering for vampires. We could spend all day analyzing why–the universal story of the outcast, the interesting focus it puts on our mortality, the inherent sexuality–but at the end of the day it’s just a proven, entertaining trope that has been able to inspire good stories. Well, mostly it inspires tweens to wear black in the sun. But when we’re lucky and pray to the right god (Buffy Summers), we get a good story. Except, what exactly is a vampire story? Is it different from a story whose characters just happen to be vampires? I never thought about it before, but Park Chan-Wook’s new film has me asking if vampires actually beat gays into getting movies made starring them, yet not about them, and whether something like is really desirable.
The thing with Thirst is that at first it actually starts out be completely about vampire-associated themes. Happy, flute-playing priest Sang-hyeon selflessly volunteers himself for a dangerous drug-testing trial to cure a disease, and ends up being the only one to survive. It turns out it’s because he’s turning into a vampire, and although he quickly comes to be regarded as a holy faith healer by the public, he struggles privately over his new demonic tendencies. The horror of a priest not having control of his body, suddenly living on the fringe, all come part of the deal. Soon, celibate Sang-hyeon even starts dreaming about a depressed married woman named he meets Tae-joo, which interestingly happens to be pronounced the same way as Tadzio, the object of obsession in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. For those who never read the book or fell asleep during the overblown movie version, the story follows a similarly repressed dude whose passions bust through his white linen slacks when he sees a striking young boy around the hotel he’s staying at. He then lurks around, titillated and confused, until everything finally cresendos to his oozy demise under the sun.
An eerily vampiric life and death to be sure. Thirst is like Death in Venice in that it raises questions about the modern self, and how we get all twisted around when we lose our moral compasses, or in the case of Sang-hyeon, when a moral compasses suddenly become slightly less important than vanting to dlink your blud. Sadly, about halfway through, the plot of Thirst ends up dropping Death in Venice and decides to draft its plot from a totally different European novel, Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin.
Therese Raquin’s story points of infidelity, revenge, murder, paralysis and guilt, while surprising and entertaining, illuminate very little about the vampiric, Death in Venice-like themes that the story originally teases out. The best way vampires could have enhanced Zola’s novel, about a wife who is trapped in her life but due to her temperament and those she involves herself with is doomed to never see freedom, would be if she was the one turning into vampire, thought it would be her ticket out, and we got to spend the movie seeing how it can’t be. This is very close to what happens, as Tae-joo does vicariously experiences vampirism through Sang-hyeon, but because of Sang-hyeon’s character it all becomes too muddied to really feel for either of them. Did Sang-hyeon become a vampire because of his repressed views and his need to do good that blew up in his face? Is it a result of his character at all or just random affliction? Will he be continually punished for trying to overcome it? Or is he being punished when he gives in to his new urges? If what we saw from Sang-hyeon early in the movie were identifiable or more down to earth, maybe his life-ache and romantic quandaries in the rest of the movie would be more dramatic, but his vow of celibacy made the situation more porno-tastic rather than problematic.
Thirst mines a commendable amount of humor and disgust out of some fearlessly gross situations, but because of the confusing themes, the feeling left after the initial enjoyment is empty. In Sam Raimi’s recent, back-to-basics horror flick Drag Me To Hell, a cartoonishly horrific gushing nosebleed can be utterly delectable because we understand as an audience that its happening to the main character due to her continued (sympathetic amount of) hubris. In Thirst–although this type of shock value occurrences happen all the time with blood-filled flutes, rotting fingernails, and smiling dead body cock blockers–their overall effect is less than involving, and watching Sang-hyeon contend with his vampirism becomes not unlike watching someone contend with cancer. On its own, someone puking up a pile of meat they had no business eating in the first place definitely has some entertainment value… but that ends once you remember that the reason they were nauseous was because of a round of chemo. After that, it simply becomes unfortunate. And long.
By the way, it’s Park Chan-Wook, so obviously it looks like a ton of work has gone into it and the acting and individual scenes are pretty fantastic. He lets the drama unfold naturally and kinetically in tight spaces, and holds enough back to let the audience experience the emotion, rather than just telegraphing the next thing to happen.
One particularly charged sequence of accusations/reveals between our tortured couple becomes almost meandering enough to be a turn off, despite the intrigue of the plot (which by itself is enjoyable), but when the perfect button is put on it at the end, it feels paid off and genius. It’s just too bad that when we get to the end of the film and we expect to find an equally magical button to put the whole film into a similar tidy perspective, and nothing can be found.
Creating a logical endpoint to the couple’s grisly vampire life that rings true is supposed to be satisfactory enough, because they happen to be vampires, but we can have the thrill of watching humans be picked off like gazelle, fear of suns and stakes, and strained vampire/maker relations every week on True Blood. If you’re going to make vampires part of a classic novel, make sure it’s adding something more than just those three things. Or else we’re going to have a bigger plague on our hands with this fancy new trend than we ever expected.