Thirst is the second foreign movie this year to re-imagine the vampire myth. The first, the Swedish film Låt den Rätte Komma In (Let the Right One In), played upon the tension ever-present in the vampire-human relationship – between existential dependence and brutal domination.
It is because this relationship captures something central to the world we all inhabit that vampires can slip so readily between cultures and through history. Thirst, Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s long-promised “vampire love story”, is a case in point. Chan-Wook, who identifies with the South Korean left, is well aware of the meaning that lurks behind the myth, noting in an interview that he likes “the idea of a vampire as a metaphor for any kind of exploiter”.
Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest who selflessly volunteers for a dangerous medical experiment. A transfusion performed as he fights for his life introduces tainted blood into his body and transforms him into a vampire, triggering his descent from a life of ascetic purity into one of fleshly pleasures.
He is forced to ask whether it is the alien blood alone that is to blame for the corruption of his innocence – and that of those around him.
Tae-ju (a brilliant Kim Ok-vin) is the wife of a childhood friend who seeks escape from her oppressive family life. The film tells of her developing relationship with Sang-hyun and its impact on a world they have left behind but remain bound to by strands of dependence, guilt and obligation.
Chan-Wook’s earlier films include Oldboy and I’m a Cyborg. Fans will recognise some recurring themes: a fascination with forbidden sexuality and quirky romance; a male protagonist attempting to do good in a society that corrupts all; a strong female lead who retreats from her mundane existence into a disturbing inner life; dark humour alongside gut-wrenching violence.
This is not the masterpiece that Chan-Wook may one day create. The secondary characters lack substance and at times the director seems more interested in shocking his audience than telling a coherent story. It is also, like so many films today, at least quarter of an hour too long.
But it is the work of a great film-maker capable of grappling with serious themes, and it will be rewarding viewing for anyone with a sufficiently strong stomach and a taste for blood.
A pick of the highlights
Addressing the silence over history of medical racism
Another great Thor adventure from Marvel