Sorry, “Twilight” fans, “Thirst” (2009) is the best modern-day vampire film. Having come out only a year after the kickstarter to the fan-favorite franchise, Park Chan Wook’s psychological thriller demonstrates what a true paragon of vampire film looks like, delivering a bizarre and off-putting narrative undergirded by a tremendous feat of filmmaking.
We follow the life of Sanghyun, a virtuous Catholic priest who helplessly witnesses the sufferings of his patients in the Korean hospital he works at. Dejected and disillusioned, Sanghyun volunteers himself to a foreign laboratory working on an antidote to the lethal Emmanuel virus. In the vaccine lab, Sanghyun eventually contracts the deadly illness, bleeding profusely to a point where no amount of blood transfusions could save him from his death. Or so we think, until he miraculously bursts back to life, the once-dead silent heartbeat monitor thumping with regularity.
Turns out, the unknown source of blood Sanghyun was transfused with had vampiric origins. Why the laboratory had access to vampire blood is not a question the film seeks to answer. Whatever the reason, Sanghyun is now a full-fledged Dracula, capable of superhuman abilities. But this comes with a cost. The morally incorruptible priest must now find a way to constantly satisfy his craving for human blood or perish from his incurable disease.
This conflict is further complicated when Tae-ju enters the picture; the ill-fated wife of Sanghyun’s old friend, she lives in an abusive, patriarchal household. Sanghyun and Tae-ju’s meeting blossoms into an unconventional love story that quickly spirals into vengeance and lust.
These twists and turns in the movie’s plot map onto the camera movement, which takes its viewers on a rollercoaster ride. The camera pans, dollies, blurs, slows down, speeds up, zooms in, zooms out, shakes, and holds. No range of motion goes untested by the camera as its story arc follows a similar pattern of irregularity. The same could be said about the film’s score, composed by Cho Young-Wukeaceful, idyllic strings can come crashing to a swell of strains, all accompanying the rapid tonal transitions the story exhibits. “Thirst” explores a manifold of cinematic elements informed by its genre-bending narrative.
Park Chan Wook doesn’t shy away from the usage of visual effects either, an essential component demanded by the fantastical subject matter. Unfortunately, the small budget and lack of visual effects expertise in the Korean film industry are apparent in many of these supernatural sequences. Whether it looked more realistic during its theatrical release is up for debate, but the wire-flying stunts that completely reject Newton’s laws of gravity clearly haven’t aged well.
But ultimately, in Park Chan Wook’s rendition of the vampire genre, the supernatural is deemphasized in favor of the character drama. The film relishes in the moral ambivalence of its characters and plot. Once the honorable priest is subjected to a body made inescapable from its vices, lust and violence threaten to consume Sanghyun from every corner. One could argue that his vampiric inception is very much a nod to Jesus’s resurrection, but the trials and tribulations following Sanghyun’s revival question whether this revival was a gift or a curse.
“Thirst” doesn’t seek to reify or condemn any of its characters outright. Here is where an unusual dose of realism enters this supernatural tale. The moral ambiguity of its characters is a particularly human trait that undercuts the superhuman fabric of the movie.
When framed under the inhumane, misogynistic treatment that Tae-ju experienced, Sanghyun signifies a messianic figure meant to rescue her from the gates of hell. But under a different lens, Sanghyun and Tae-ju are committing an unashamed form of adultery. The film naturally asks the audience to judge: do you denounce their love or appreciate it as a justified response to the unjust conditions of Tae-ju’s life? If the answer is the latter, the couple’s rapid descent down a spiral of debauchery challenges exactly when the line should then be drawn, if at all.
Essentially, the supernatural concept of a Dracula is used as a vehicle to examine the depths of human morality. “Thirst” is, first and foremost, a movie about its human characters, not simply an indulgent exploration of paranormal fantasies.
This mature approach is a refreshing take on the vapid genre of vampires, which extends to its graphic depiction of sex and violence. So, in case you were wondering, “Thirst” is not a family-friendly film by any means.
Instead, “Thirst” stands as possibly the most experimental work within the terribly provocative and daring filmography of Park Chan Wook’s career. While the movie may not please the general public like the teenage heartthrobs of “Twilight” managed to, “Thirst” deserves greater appreciation. If not for its moral dilemmas, then at least for its cinematic artistry.