Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Vampire Priest and his Nemesis in "Thirst"


Vampires have historically been considered evil, but fictionally they are currently not considered 100% bad. If you add a bit of trendy perversity, perhaps even martyrdom, to the mix you might get an instant hero, or the 20th century equivalent – the antihero.

Antiheroes are the ultimate outcasts, and if they are self-loathing, that’s even better: the romantic, but evil, protagonist is born . . . or reborn. Who better to personify those attributes than the modern fictional vampire? In Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" the vampire hero is a priest whose intended martyrdom gets undone by an accidental transfusion of tainted blood.

There are no Van Helsings in this story, no tortured explanations of what could possibly be wrong with Father Sang-Hyeon, no stakes, crucifixes, or fangs. He knows he’s a vampire, and he also quickly figures out the disfiguring facial blisters which continue to plague him can only be cured by a fresh infusion of blood. So vanity, and self-preservation, inspires his thirst, which leads to the bloodsucking, and as a kind of afterthought, the sex.

Nemesis was the Greek goddess of indignation against evil deeds and undeserved good fortune, and the good priest’s nemesis is introduced in the form of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), an innocent, possibly abused young wife. She walks and acts as if half-asleep, in a surly don’t-wake-me-up doze. She’s subservient, wounded, her lips pouting like a baby waiting to suckle. Only when Tae-ju runs barefoot in the night do we see a semblance of the quiescent strength roiling like lava inside her. The Father takes her in his arms and they take flight, hopping buildings like the superhero he is in her eyes. Who could resist such a savior? Certainly not Lois when Superman carried her aloft.

"Vampires are cuter than I thought," she says. This could have been uttered by the besotted teen in Twilight, but with this actress the action takes a decidedly adult turn. More Lilith than Eve, this isn’t about love, at least not in the beginning. She wants to consort with demons, and relishes her newfound freedom, strength, and ability to break the bonds and bounds of her marital, and human, slavery. Not since Claudia, the ancient child vampire in Interview with the Vampire have we been treated to such anger, brutality and guiltlessness. And we love her for it, as does the Father.

Hero and heroine cover their secrets . . . scarred and bruised thighs. Both are self-mutilators, his arrived at in an attempt to drive away his demon erections, and hers a deliberate attempt to manipulate the vampire into a bit of husband killing by making him believe her spouse is abusing her.

All it takes is the vampire’s blood to uncap the volcano within her.

He does not seduce like Dracula, turning virtuous Mina’s into tarts. The priest is seduced, but even then he seems more interested in biting her than in intercourse. A disconcerting slurpiness saturates the soundtrack where even kissing is treated to the same absurd sound effects as ravenous bloodsucking. This is part of the humor in the film, and pokes fun at not only the genre, but also the sexual fetishes that are part of it.

The underlying BDSM inherent in most vampire films is highly pronounced here. For me, this was relieved by the blood appearing too thin and watery, like the sweet syrup it probably is. Still, there’s plenty of it for you connoisseurs, and it’s often associated with sex.

The French title for the movie translates as the liturgically evocative "This Is My Blood." The body and blood, as well as the prayer for martyrdom recited throughout the film, (“pull out my nails, so that I may grasp nothing") strikes at the heart of this morality tale and the vampire/superhero mythos.