Saturday 12 November 2011

From the archive: "Thirst"

After his wacky misfire I'm a Cyborg (But That's OK), OldBoy director Park Chan-wook returns to more generic territory, and full form, with Thirst, a type A-positive vampire movie. Self-flagellating priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) survives a rare tropical virus after undergoing a transfusion, only the new blood comes with side effects: heightened senses, the ability to leap from high ledges without incurring any injury... Soon he's gulping down blood from those patients he's been called to administer the last rites to (well, if it's going to go to waste...), and ditching his dog collar and Harry Potter specs to commit ever more athletic sins of the flesh.

Priest-as-vampire's a new one - the one half of Sang-hyun forever trying to suppress desires the other half can't help but give into - but Thirst's real stroke of imaginative genius is in transplanting its bloodsucking to a mundane domestic environment. Most of the action takes place in and around a cramped flat above a dressmaker's shop where the priest lodges with a hypochondriac weakling, the latter's overbearing mother, and his underappreciated wife. Once bitten, the latter is anything but shy; indeed, her desires become too great for her to remain faithful to Sang-hyun, and so one unhealthy love triangle comes to replace another. What do you do when you find somebody else's blood on your partner's collar?

Let the Right One In demonstrated how the vampire movie could deal in delicacy and restraint; Park, as is his wont, goes to the opposite extreme, and brings back sickly set design (a turquoise waterbed!), armpit-licking, mutual wrist-sucking and all the baroque directorial flourishes Park's admirers have come to expect. Yet an emotional undertow pulls the film out beyond the shallow waters of simple fanboy enthusiasm: the above transgressions are those of characters testing just how far they'd be prepared to go for love, and Park seems acutely aware of the horrors that can follow whenever our affections begin to clot. More wild Gothic melodrama than outright horror, it's nevertheless a potent, intoxicating cocktail: the work of a supremely confident director prepared to break all the rules by trying to do The Thorn Birds, Thérèse Raquin and Tod Browning at the same time.

(October 2009)

Thirst screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.40am.

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