Tuesday, October 09, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #13: THIRST (2009)

The Story: A dour priest submits his body to an experiment to find the cure for a deadly virus.  On his deathbed, he receives a blood transfusion that saves his life... only to learn afterward that he was cured by the blood of a vampire, and now lives with an intense desire for "all things sinful."

Expectations: The film is written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, the man behind the wildly popular "Vengeance Trilogy" (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE in 2002, OLDBOY in 2003, and SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE in 2005).  Like Sam Peckinpah or John Woo, Chan-wook makes violence and brutality seem utterly hypnotic.  It seems only natural that he should turn his talent to horror films.

Reaction: Like the Vengeance films, THIRST is not about hyperviolence.  It is anchored by a compelling emotional core -- the internal struggle of a priest with a newfound lust for the darker side of life.  In a more conventional vampire movie, this character would either be a villain or a whiny, self-loathing hero, but that's not what happens here.  Sang-hyun suffers in silence, and that's what makes his story so compelling.  We want him to act on his impulses.  We want to see what he's capable of. 

Eventually Sang-hyun becomes fascinated with the wife of an old friend, a sympathetic young woman who has lived her entire life in humiliating subjugation (not unlike the main character in OLDBOY).  Like him she suffers in silence, and their mutual need for human contact becomes overwhelming.  As soon as the characters give in to their desires, their illicit affair proves that Park Chan-wook is also not interested in telling a conventional vampire story where bloodsucking serves as a substitute for sex.  There is sex aplenty here... not just sex, but a kind of sexual obsession that becomes even more hypnotic and compelling than the violence in the director's earlier films.  In fact, I'd say that THIRST is a reminder of just how bland the "sex scenes" in most movies really are -- totally devoid of human intimacy -- and of how casually so many horror movies combine sex and death, without ever recognizing how we sometimes crave one in order to defeat the other. 

In the second half of the film, I found myself so embroiled in the wants and needs of the two main characters that I hated to see them turn against each other... but of course I knew it was inevitable.  The writer/director doesn't make the obvious choice here either.  Instead of putting the two characters against each other in a moral debate, he pulls them closer and closer together until their intimacy fosters hate just as easily as it fosters love.  That's how obsession works, isn't it?  We can't get enough until we get too much.  And that's what gives the film its raw power.  In a way, THIRST is simply a tale of first love -- love so powerful that it can destroy everything around it, even the lovers themselves.  The finale suggests that it's as impossible to escape that type of love as it is to stop being a vampire.  Obsession gets into our blood and transforms us.  But into what?  Through it all, this twisted romance remains playfully seductive and genuinely unnerving -- and for that it deserves very high marks.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: One of the most whimsical sequences in the film is also the most unsettling.  The writer/director also offers his version of a ghost story by literally placing a dead man between the bodies of the two lovers while they're having sex.   

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