"Thirst": The blood is love

Review: The South Korean vampire flick is gorgeous, gory and carnal.

Park Chan-Wook, the filmmaker almost singlehandedly responsible for exporting South Korea’s manic, audacious brand of cinema to the States, flirted with the horror aesthetic for almost a decade before he made Thirst.

Violence and lust are entwined in his films, like so much blood-soaked yarn wrapped around the corpse of a beautiful young bride-to-be on her wedding day, her once-pristine dress stained with crimson splotches. In a Chan-Wook film, to love is to die, and to die is to experience love. Killing isn’t an inherently evil act but stems from humanity’s innate depravity, the darkness lurking within everyone’s essential being. No one kills because they’re bored or because they’re crazy; there are no monsters. People kill other people for revenge, futile attempts to revitalize love long lost. Life is a precious thing, and Chan-Wook goes to extreme measures—really, really extreme measures—to exhume pain and portray the fleeting nature of humanity, each of us but a body drifting like leaves caught in the transient slipstream of a passing breeze.

If his films are graphically violent and brutal, grotesque even beyond the realm of Eli Roth’s sordid mind channels, it’s because his is a vehement morbidity, eternal tragedies and melodramas transpired in modernity. Each death means something, and no life passes inconsequentially. 

Chan-Wook tore into western theaters with his Vengeance Trilogy, a sort of Unholy Visceral Trinity of cinematic savagery. The first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, remains his most morose, with nary a smirk or moment of hilarity to ease the sorrow. He offers no alleviation, no pain killers, because in reality, is there some omnipresent jester ready and willing to tell us a joke and brighten the darkness of our lives? (If there is, the bastard’s gone out of his way to avoid me.)

In Mr. Vengeance, a deaf and mute young man, recently fired from his factory job after miscommunication with his employers (communication failure is a catalyst for much suffering here, and a thread woven through the story, like an artery waiting to be severed), struggles to find money to pay for his sister’s organ transplant. When a sequence of cruel ironies leaves him broke and minus one of his kidneys, his anarchist girlfriend hatches a plan to kidnap his former employer’s daughter and demand just enough money to pay for the operation. By the end of the film, none is left alive.

Chan-Wook adds some lightening humor to the middle installment, the 2003 blockbuster Oldboy, though the ending is arguably more heart-squelching, a mind-rape scarier and more unnerving than anything released by a major American studio in the last decade. (These are mainstream movies in South Korea, mind you; we get the cold and bloated Dark Knight Rises, to which fan boys are drawn like a pile of metal shavings in the vicinity of a magnet, while South Korea gets soul-searing art.) In Oldboy, a man is locked in a room for fifteen years, possibly goes crazy, and is released into a world almost alien to him. Of course he wants revenge, and of course the price everyone must pay is heavier than Chris Christie on the fourth Thursday of November.

In 2009, after veering into the horror lane so many times, like a tipsy driver on a rainy night, Park Chan-Wook finally took the plunge into pure-breed horror with Thirst, maybe the most sexual vampire film you’ll ever see. (I’ve seen fleshlier, but I live a lonely life.)

Sang-hyun, a priest (Song Kang-Ho, currently the Korean Brad Pitt) with a penchant for self-inflicted pain, is struggling with a looming haze of depression and a spiritual crisis. When he has lewd or impure thoughts, he beats himself with a recorder flute. In an effort to purge the impurities from his soul, he accepts the would-be martyrdom task of being a test subject for an experimental vaccine for the deadly Emmanuel Virus. Out of 499 subjects, none has survived. Sang-hyun likes these odds.

Like those who preceded him, Sang-hyun dies not long after being administered the vaccine, blood spurting from his mouth and eyes and ears and his skin bubbling in a scene that begins tranquilly and somberly before giving way to abrupt bodily mutilation. That Sang-hyun’s body tears itself apart without any tangible force making contact with it — no knife, axe, saw, gun, or any other weapon is to blame for his death — reflects Chan-Wook’s notion of humans destroying themselves from the inside. He volunteered for the experiment; his life essence cascades out of him in gungy torrents.

But Sang-hyun receives a blood transplant and only stays dead for maybe 10 seconds. (It doesn’t make sense, but shhhh.) He’s proclaimed a miracle worker, a living saint. He becomes famous and families and friends of the ailed flock to him, begging for the healing touch of his calloused hands. He knows he can offer no such serenity—unless, of course, they don’t mind having two small puncture marks on the side of their necks…

Sang-hyun is asked to live with his friend, who is both ill and stupid. The overbearing mother, annoying and irritating in turns, heaps bundles of icky love on her snot-nosed moron of a son, his face a perpetual smear of numb obliviousness. His wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-Bin), afflicted with the burden of having to take care of the man-child while dealing with his mother’s constant bitching, becomes fiercely attracted to Sang-hyun and he is sudden unable to resist her seduction. As depressed as Sang-hyun but devoid of the half-hearted hope to which he desperately clings, she runs barefoot on the asphalt every night, pretending she’s getting away from the hell in which she lives. But now she can take solace in the warm embrace of the priest’s loins: In a long and unflinching scene of sexual dexterity, the pair rolls around in a hospital bed, white sheets enveloping around them like so much sea foam. (This was the first major South Korean film to show male full-frontal nudity.) That he’s a vampire and has been surviving by drinking the blood out of his comatose friend’s IV has yet to be revealed to Jae-tu, but all good things to those who wait.

Park Chan-Wook’s genius is and has always been his immaculate compositions. Every shot is as beautiful and calculated — no, calculated is too frigid a word — as beautiful and pensive as a Shakespearean soliloquy. There’s a poetic, unperturbedly calm beauty to Chan-Wook’s camerawork; he uses every inch of frame, working the Rule of Thirds as masterfully as Federer smacks that fuzzy green orb. But his visual pallet is different in Thirst: whereas his Vengeance Trilogy displayed a lot of symmetrical shots, a character or subject in the middle of the screen, whether vertically or horizontally, with scenery or objects carefully plotted on either side, here he favors off-center shots, almost obsessively. As a film fanatic, it’s hugely satisfying, if a bit maddening, to dissect each of his shots, seeing where on the imperceptible grid objects fall. Even his moving shots follow strict paths, with no moment wasted. His films secrete style and visual flamboyance, but they don’t delve into gaudiness—his eloquent control is at its most mature in Thirst, with the visuals not as distracting as they are in the Vengeance Trilogy (as beautiful as they are, they often draw your focus away from what’s actually happening).

Thirst isn’t a “scary” horror film. It’s more a romanticized expedition into the essence of love and the undeniable role lust plays in our ceaseless search for meaning, for acceptance and comfort and quietude. Francis Ford Coppola approached his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula similarly in 1992, but he doused it in garish exuberance and camp and so much kitsch. Bernard Rose’s supremely underrated Candyman (which almost stole the thunder from Coppola’s film that year) almost feels like a proto­-Chan-Wook film, its shots as carefully captured and its melodramatic breed of fear more concerned with the proverbial human condition and cultural criticism. (It also has a gorgeous score by Philip Glass, who was slated to do the score to Chan-Wook’s American debut, Stoker, but was replaced by Clint Mansell; Cho Young-Wuk’s equally wonderful score for Oldboy Channels Glass’s hypnotic repetition while infusing lush strings and swells of bombast, a stark contrast to the near-silence of Mr. Vengeance.) If you wanted to like Coppola’s Dracula, or if you do like Candyman, or if you haven’t seen either but want to try and stomach something niche and stunning and difficult, try Thirst: it’ long, it’s gory, it’s explicitly sexual, it’s beautiful; it’s currently on Netflix Instant. Just don’t show it to a girl you’re interested in, because she may be frightened in the bad way. Believe me, I know. I know.

Official Trailer:

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