The world, apparently, can't get enough of vampires these days. It doesn't seem to matter what kind they are—the grownup, sexy vampires of HBO's True Blood are just as popular with their fans as the chaste hotties of Twilight. And now there are the Korean vampires of Thirst to contend with, from director Park Chan-wook, the auteur whose films are often as lovely as they are disturbing.
Thirst stars Song Kang-ho, Korea's reigning box-office king, as Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who volunteers to be part of a medical experiment that ends up killing him and the other 499 participants. Ah, but wait. The blood he receives in a transfusion brings him back to life as a vampire, and as long as he continues to drink human blood, he's able to hold the disease, which is nasty and disfiguring, at bay. But this is a man of faith, who finds himself struggling with his newfound desires, for blood, for sex, for all the visceral experiences from which he's abstained throughout his life. It's exactly the opposite of the Twilight movies, which feature good-looking teenagers not giving in to their earthly desires, whether that means sucking blood or having sex.
“These are two very contrasting and opposing elements,” Chan-wook told CityBeat through a translator. “The idea of vampirism and a Catholic priest. I set these two very different places, one a very high point, and the other, the very bottom.”
As he struggles with his earthly desires, Sang-hyeon finds kinship in Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. She's attractive and lonely and weird, and it isn't long before he finds himself up to his carotid artery in (very graphic) sex, blood, murder and death—all of which comes with something the Catholics are notorious for.
“What's important is that this noble Catholic priest falls into a place where he cannot abstain from these desires any more,” Chan-wook says. “So he commits murder, violence and sex. But this doesn't give him pleasure. In one sense, it gives him liberation, but he's gripped by this great sense of guilt. This is because he still tries to hold onto his faith.”
Now, all this sounds deadly serious. But like all of Chan-wook's films, Thirst also manages to be terribly funny, and anyone who saw Kang-ho in the monster movie The Host knows how entertaining he is. Chan-wook is also a brilliant director, and Thirst is beautifully shot. The camera moves throughout each scene, offering a different perspective and always managing to be at the right place at the right time to capture a spray of blood that's both gorgeous and unsettling. And even though it's a vampire film—there's no shortage of blood found here—Thirst is really about a Catholic's worst fear: temptation. And not just the temptations the priest is suddenly facing. Even though he considers his situation more curse than blessing, there are lots of people around him who want what he has.
“This vampire's blood is something that enters into a person's body and creates changes,” Chan-wook says. “It offers extraordinary senses and enormous strength and has healing qualities, but at the same time, it takes away the ability to control your desires. It also lessens the sense of ethics that you may have. In treating vampirism as a disease or a virus, I gave it the quality of being a disease that can cure other diseases. So, it's the subject of desire for people surrounding him. It tempts them.”
But it's the essence of Catholicism that gave Chan-wook the idea of a vampire priest. “During mass, they drink wine, which represents the blood of Christ,” he says. “Conducting a mass, for a priest, is probably the most important activity of the day. The essence of mass is to give out the blood of Christ, so the idea of turning him into a vampire has its roots in this.”
And in many ways, Catholicism itself is likened to vampirism in the film, in that it's a religion that's inherently Western making its way into an Eastern society. “It's kind of like a viral infiltration,” he says. “That's what I wanted to deal with. This theme of external elements coming into a new environment, and the reactions of the environment in dealing with this infiltration.”Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.