Thirst - a darkly beautiful addition to the vampire genre

16th October 2009

Milo Wakelin warmly welcomes this Cannes Jury Prize winner from Chan-Wook Park, the director of Oldboy.

With a cinematic legacy stretching back to The Vampire of the Coast (1909), the undead genre is getting a little long in the tooth. Leave it to Korean auteur Chan-Wook Park to shock it back to life with this darkly beautiful film which won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Park is best known for revenge thrillers such as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance but this melancholy romance is closer in tone to the quieter, more reflective I'm a Cyborg. The story is based on Émile Zola's 1867 novel, Therese Raquin, which scandalised Parisian society with its tale of adultery and murder.

Despite its horror trappings, the basic plot sticks closely to that of the book: a shy young woman, Tae-joo (Ok-vin Kim) is stuck in a marriage to a sickly man-child, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his domineering mother, Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim). Tae-joo embarks on a passionate affair with her husband's childhood friend, Sang-hyeon (played by Park regular Kang-ho Song), and the lovers hatch a scheme that quickly returns to haunt them.

Park's first major departure from Zola's original is that Sang-hyeon is a priest. The second is that, as a result of a blood transfusion, he becomes a vampire. Perhaps unexpectedly, neither of these factors make much difference to the story: Zola's aim was "to study temperaments, not characters", and Park uses the clash between Sang-hyeon good intentions and bloodthirsty instincts to heighten the tale's sense of moral peril.

Ironically, Sang-hyeon's vampiric resurrection gives him a new lease on life and the courage to make a movie on the downtrodden Tae-joo. Unwilling to commit murder to slake his thirst he syphons blood from a comatose hospital patient, but in the end it's his all-too-human desire for his best friend's wife which tests his principles.

The inevitable bloodletting is stylish but not gratuitous, and Park plays with the conventions of the horror genre without overusing them. Sang-hyeon's cassock is a visually effective alternative to a vampire's cape, and rather than sprouting fangs, a pair of dressmaker's clippers are employed to create the trademark neck punctures. Thirst is shot through with a vein of pitch black comedy, and as the adulterous couple are forced to take refuge from daylight they videotape the comings and goings of everyday life through their window to retain some semblance of a link with the outside world.

The film is overlong, and the final act takes the story into emotionally uneasy territory, but Thirst joins Let The Right One In as an intelligent, inventive addition to a genre that has already been done to death.

Thirst is out in UK cinemas now


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