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Thirst

Once again, the time has come for me to stay at home, lock the doors, pop in my drumline-grade earplugs, shut my eyes closed, shout “LALALALALALA” as loud as I can, and pretend that the Twilight franchise isn’t happening. I keep asking my sister to come back and take this bullet for me one more time, even she won’t come anywhere near this picture.

Mercifully, this is pretty much the last great hurrah of the Twilight fanbase. There will be aftershocks, of course: Attempts to capture Twilight’s audience and emulate the franchise’s success are already well underway (see: Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hunger Games, last year’s Red Riding Hood, etc.). There’s also Andrew Niccol’s adaptation of The Host — the only non-Twilight book ever written by Stephanie Meyer — which we’ll have to deal with next year.

The good news is that this, too, shall pass. I know in my heart that the worst will be over very soon and some other big trend will come along for Hollywood to strip mine (I’m bullish on the “team-up” movies made popular by The Avengers). So long as Meyer stays happy with her millions and never gets off her ass to write another book, we’ll be fine. If we’re really lucky, pop culture will have moved on before Hollywood can unload that Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation they’ve been threatening to make.

Anyway, I still feel that weird urge to write a blog entry in response to the Twilight phenomenon. I want to talk about a film that deals with vampires in a romantic way without compromising their monstrous tendencies. You know, something that shows the Twihards how to do it right. Something that my fellow Twilight haters can choose to see instead.

Let the Right One In has been the “anti-Twilight” standard bearer of choice since it came out in 2008, and rightfully so. It’s a wonderful film. Yet only a year later, there came another foreign vampire movie that was noted for delivering romance and scares. Even better, this one came from South Korea and was made by the guy who directed Oldboy, so you know it’s going to be fucked-up. I’m of course referring to Thirst.

This is the story of Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), a Catholic priest who’s devoted his life to saving people. He doesn’t just want to save their souls, but their bodies and minds as well. As such, Sang-hyun primarily works by offering his services to a local hospital, where he can help patients through religion and through science.

To continue helping people through science — and, it’s implied, to ease his own emotional problems through righteous suicide — Sang-hyun volunteers as a test patient for a new vaccine. He’s injected with a test vaccine and a nasty disease called the Emmanuel Virus (EV). Sang-hyun dies of the virus, but somehow revives after a blood transfusion.

As the sole survivor out of 500 test subjects, and as a man of God, the whole country comes to see Sang-hyun as a saint. They’re convinced that he holds the key to eternal life, capable of curing any illness with nothing more than a prayer. All the while, Sang-hyun starts showing such unusual side effects as enhanced hearing, a stronger sense of smell, and a crippling addiction to human flesh.

Yes, it is a little strange that this particular variety of vampirism is brought about by science, instead of the more common supernatural cause. Then again, zombies come in both paranormal and scientific varieties, so why not vampires? Also, I should point out that this particular case of vampirism may not have been caused by the virus or the vaccine, but by the transfused blood. In any case, we never learn exactly what caused the outbreak or where the donated blood came from.

Before going any further, let’s take a moment to think about what we’ve got. Religious items and articles of faith have been anathema to vampires since Bram Stoker, and now we’re watching a priest get turned into a vampire. It’s a fascinating twist, no? Better yet, we have a man who spent his life under vows of chastity and nonviolence, now transformed into a violent creature famous for seducing its prey. It’s a wonderful inner conflict to watch, especially when he starts doing so many mental gymnastics to justify all the blood he spills.

And lest we forget, the guy with a thirst for blood works at a hospital. That makes so much sense, it’s honestly quite terrifying.

Then we have the love interest, Tae-ju, played by Ok-bin Kim. She’s the adoptive sister — and later, the husband — of Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), a chronically sick man who just happens to be an old childhood friend of Sang-hyun. They reconnect during Sang-hyun’s “sainthood,” which leads to a secret affair between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju.

It took me a long time to get a handle on Tae-ju. Sure, I understood that she and Sang-hyun have known each other since they were kids, but that didn’t explain why she threw herself at Sang-hyun the way she did. I understood that she was a very odd duck with possible mental illness, but there was no clue as to what exactly made her tick. Then, suddenly, I got it.

Tae-ju is the wife of a chronically ill man. Her mother-in-law (who’s also her adoptive mother, remember) frequently nags Tae-ju to tend to Kang-woo’s constant medical needs. For one thing, of course that would lead her to a one-sided and unhappy marriage. For another thing, this has led Tae-ju to grow very envious of her husband. Why can’t she lay around all day without doing any work? Why can’t she have someone tending to her every need? Maybe if she came down with a life-threatening illness, people would finally start taking her seriously. The logic is quite immature, I grant you, but it’s easy to see how Tae-ju came to that conclusion.

Also, Tae-ju thinks that being a vampire would be just plain awesome. Again, it’s immature, but you can see where she’s coming from.

Sang-hyun takes the “disease” line of thinking in some interesting directions as well. He argues that no one gets blamed for contracting the flu or coming down with cancer, so why should he be blamed for his vampiric disease? Sang-hyun sees himself as the victim, and he’s not entirely wrong about that. Then again, he glosses over how ethical it is to take blood from someone else, even if he finds ways of doing it without killing anyone.

To sum up: Sang-hyun spends the entire film trying to reconcile his humanity with his vampiric needs, while Tae-ju has completely embraced being a monster. Yet the two of them are all they’ve got, and they clearly love each other. As such, the “man vs. monster” conflict is happening on quite a few different levels here. In Sang-hyun’s internal conflict, and in his external conflict with Tae-ju, Sang-hyun has to figure out just how much of his humanity to hold onto, if any. It’s a wonderful ongoing dilemma, presented in such a way that there’s no telling exactly which side is going to win out in any given scenario.

Even if the pacing dragged a little at times, I was never bored. The characters and the actors’ performances were all more than interesting enough to keep me engaged, though it also helped that the film had a wonderful score to give some slower scenes a boost. Additionally, though the wirework looked laughably awful, the vampires’ powers were otherwise presented in some very creative and fascinating ways. The visuals in this movie are all superb, in point of fact, with some cleverly edited scenes, some wonderfully novel camera movements, and brilliant use of color.

Best of all, director Park Chan-Wook pulled absolutely no punches here. This is not a director who shies away from blood, nudity, violence, or sex on film. Through a great deal of horrifying imagery, the film constantly reminds us that our main characters are bloodsucking monsters. Chan-Wook means business, which makes the movie far more shocking and scary.

Despite a few minor plot problems and hiccups in the production value, Thirst is an outstanding entry in vampire cinema. It’s sexy, it’s violent, it’s scary, and there’s a great deal of very compelling character drama at its core. This is a film that very elegantly portrays the seductive appeal of vampirism without ever compromising the characters’ vulnerability or beastly nature.

If you’re a horror fan and/or if you’re sick to death of the Twilight franchise, you have no excuse not to check this film out. HIGHLY recommended.

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