Catholic guilt and awkward sex

Raymond Li 22 October 2009

Thirst – 3/5

Raymond Li feels dizzy after seeing gallons of blood being spilled in this vampire thriller

You’re fornicating with your friend’s wife, sucking blood out of sleeping patients in a hospital, and you’re trying to reconcile your sinful behaviour with your vows as a Catholic priest.

The world has gone mad for vampires thanks to the Twilight franchise. However, Korean director Park Chan-wook (most famous for the notorious Oldboy), takes vampires into more adult territory.

The film starts off well with an intimate examination of Sang-hyun’s struggle, as a practising priest, with his own carnal desires, which heighten after his transformation. In the opening scenes, after experiencing doubts about his vocation, he travels to Africa to participate in a trial as a guinea pig to help find a vaccine against a fatal disease.

Whilst receiving a blood transfusion, he begins his transformation. There are no pointy fangs, nor demonic red eyes, but his strength increases to superhuman proportions, and he’s able to leap around buildings Matrix-style.

As a result of his miraculous survival, Sang-hyun is worshipped as a quasi-Messiah, who is believed to be able to heal anyone of anything. The tension starts though when he meets his childhood friend, Knag-Woo and is invited to stay over at his house by the friend’s dominant mother, Madame Ra.

However, his new suburban life is threatened by his lustrous desires for Kang-Woo’s wife, Tae-joo. They are driven together by loneliness and lust. Her domestic drudgery is so much that she refuses to leave him even upon discovering his true nature. They conduct a secret affair and their efforts to assure their happiness lead to murder, betrayal and buckets of blood.

Along with the excessive gore, it’s inevitable that an element of dark comedy emerges and it succeeds in making you laugh and cringe simultaneously. In an awkward storeroom tryst, Sang-hyun accidentally bites Tae-joo in bloodlust, but they are interrupted by Madame Ra shouting from upstairs for a hot water bottle.

With the dark comedy, you are not allowed to forget the sinister tone of the film. Kim Ok-vin’s performance is particularly riveting as she walks the tight rope between the repressed housewife and the femme fatale. Her development from trapped domestic slave to rampaging killer makes her the exact opposite to Sang-hyun, who is trying desperately to control his urges.

Visually, the film provides plenty of disturbing scenes, if not in a jump-out-of-your-seat way. Sang-hyun’s splattering of blood into a recorder, whilst playing it, is a particularly unforgettable scene, as are the scenes in which he gets his blood from comatose patients (almost as if he was greedily sipping Ribena through a straw).

The paranoia, which wreaks havoc with Sang-hyun and Tae-joo after their murder of Tae-joo’s husband, is also disturbingly illustrated on screen. Characters experience visions of him coming back to life and the way Park Chan-wook captures this is unsettling. Imagine being throttled in your dreams by a clown.

The dark tone of the film does not make this pleasant viewing. The gore and bloodletting were at a gratuitous level that would make even a medic uncomfortable. Necks are stabbed, punched, and broken; tongues are cut off, and feet are amputated.

The pace is slow at the beginning but the audience is suddenly thrust into an orgy of blood-letting violence in the third act. However, the awkward sex scenes accompanying the violence linger slightly too long.

The same can be said for the film as a whole, and, in the closing act, the endless bloodshed and debauchery is exhausting. Overall, it’s worth watching for Park Chan-wook’s quirky take on vampires, although nothing ground breaking is achieved. Just don’t bring anyone who’s afraid of blood.

Thirst is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse

Raymond Li