Movies I’m Afraid Of is an occasional column in which I watch auteury or otherwise well-reviewed movies that I’ve avoided, sometimes for years, for being too creepy or depressing. To read more about the MIAO series, click here.
Vampire tales are about the Nietzschean embrace of über-power — or the difficult rejection of it. Like libertarians, vampires are staunch adherents to the cruel ethos of survival of the fittest — because they’re the fittest. Also like libertarians, they tend to be full of themselves, and part of the fun of being around them — well, vampires, anyway — is trying to figure out why they’re so desperately in love with themselves. Oldboy director Chan-Wook Park’s latest film, Thirst (2009), is a stylish, darkly hilarious vampire thriller that asks what happens when a sheepish, somewhat suicidal priest is suddenly and mysteriously turned into a powerful, immortal being.
Shy, bespectacled Father Sanghyeon (The Host‘s Kang-ho Song) spends his days hearing confessions, giving the terminally ill their last rites, and vaguely wishing he were dead — or more accurately, sacrificed. To give his life (or death) meaning, he volunteers to be injected with the experimental vaccine of a fatal and mysterious virus that only kills male missionaries. The virus shortly ravages his body, and he is about to ascend to the great Godland in the sky when he is revivified by a blood transfusion. He quickly recovers from missionary malaria and discovers that he’s lost his appetite for food, his senses of hearing and smell have intensified exponentially, and his skin burns in the sun. And he can fly.
Refreshingly, there is no vampire cabal to answer to, and no vampire traditions to uphold. Instead, Father Sanghyeon is left to choose his own moral path, and he acquits Catholic ethics quite well in this regard. He strives nobly to avoid taking lives, drinking only from a comatose man he knows to be deeply altruistic. And he falls in love for the first time, with a woeful woman named Taeju (Ok-bin Kim) who is treated like a servant by her callow husband and demanding mother-in-law. Having found a reason to live in each other, Taeju and Sanghyeon conspire to kill her husband, and things — their relationship, the mother-in-law’s sanity, the film — go south from there.
The plots of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), two of Park’s earlier (and weaker) works, devolved into histrionic grotesquerie that numbed as much as it horrified. Thirst‘s beautiful, if somewhat predictable, resolution rescues it from suffering a similar devolution, but the second half of the film gets a lot worse before it gets better. As Father Sanghyeon and Taeju find the guilt of her husband’s murder increasingly unbearable, they turn more and more depraved toward one another and to their victims. The resultant gory tableaux make the film’s second half hard to watch, yet somehow also boring, with each of the lovers increasingly turning into moral types rather than developing into nuanced characters.
Still, Thirst might well be worth watching for its enthralling first half and for Park’s clever reinventions of vampire lore. The thanatophilic vampire’s story is not one that’s frequently told, and the film is particularly inventive in how vampires — or at least this priest-turned-scrupulous vampire — might utilize 21st-century medical and Internet technology to drink more humanely — or kill more efficiently.