Friday, July 31, 2009

Art-House K-Horror: Thirst

Vampires typically do not display a lot of angst. Unlike werewolves in human form, they usually enjoy their undead gigs. However, Sang-hyun is not a normal vampire. For instance, he is a Catholic priest who dearly believes in the sanctity of life. Inevitably, this new supernatural condition leads to considerable difficulties for the good Father in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (trailer here), which opens today in select cities.

Feeling powerless in the face of the death and suffering he sees everyday as a hospital chaplain, Sang-hyun volunteers as a guinea pig in a risky clinical trial developing a vaccine for a deadly rare virus. When the testing goes awry, the priest receives an emergency transfusion tainted with vampire blood. The transfusion reverses the ravages of the virus, but at a mortal price.

Repulsed by his new appetites, Sang-hyun uses his hospital access to obtain blood without the loss of life. Yet this situation clearly will not last when Sang-hyun’s tenuous equilibrium is upset by the desires stirred by Tae-ju, the apparently innocent, put-upon wife of a childhood friend. (As readers of paranormal romance know full well, drinking blood is only one of the vampire’s compulsions.) Tae-ju represents the perfect storm for Sang-hyun, stimulating his new found darker urges as well as his lifelong instinct to protect the weak and vulnerable.

Winner of the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, Thirst is far more stylish and ambitious than the average k-horror film. Frequent Park collaborator Song Kang-ho is convincingly anguished as afflicted priest and Kim Ok-vin is quite the seductive and scary femme fatale.
While there is a fair amount of blood-letting it is not nearly as gory as most American splatter movies. Instead, Park tries to disturb viewers with transgressive imagery that conflates the sacred and the erotic.

Park certainly employs some theologically charged themes, like life after death and the corruption of innocence, but it often seems like he is only playing with them for shock value and never really plumbing their dramatic depth. At times, the tone of the film is also oddly inconsistent, alternating between heavy scenes informed by religious and archetypal motifs, and moments of black comedy, like those involving the ghost of a particular victim that feel like they could have been lifted straight out of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. Still, by depicting concepts like sin and sacrifice with absolute sincerity, Park elevates Thirst above more standard vampire fare.

A Cannes favorite with a cult following that includes Quentin Tarantino, Park is known for his arty violence. His diehard fans should be well satisfied with his latest helping of dark mayhem, even if it does not fully live up to its early promise. It opens today in New York at the Sunshine Theater.