I wonder where it all started to go wrong with celluloid vampires. As a teenager I remember watching Interview with a Vampire, and cringing at Brad Pitt's insipid, whining, central character - a poster-boy for both future vampires-with-a-conscience and, no doubt, a whole emo generation. Then there was Joss Whedon's input. The man behind some of the best dialogue in TV did, after all, create the character of Angel - initially within his excellent Buffy series, but soon warranting a decent enough dedicated spin-off show. Angel himself was another one of those whiny, angst-ridden vampires, cursed with a soul, haunted by past deeds, and constantly at odds with his natural instincts to kill and drink blood. He was perpetually moody and quintessentially emo (but for the fact that he had some decent fighting skills).
Then Twilight comes along, giving us the same kind of moody, broody, vapidly soul-searching, boy-band-esque, dumb-as-a-bag-of-nails creatures of the night, only this time without Whedon's excellent dialogue, and with far less combat and much more teen romance. It has become a phenomenal success. And it has also made vampires look like they are just about the least scary, most impotent fictional serial killers in cinematic history. Despite a few attempts to put the 'horror' back into vampire horror (Daybreakers, and the excellent HBO series True Blood), diet vampire tales are all the rage at the moment, and are simply unstoppable. Perhaps they could adapt the theme to teen zombies, reflecting the demented and oblivious, whole-world-is-in-my-mobile-phone focus of the new generation!? Well, leave it to Oldboy's Park Chan Wook to set the record straight with his latest unique Korean drama, Thirst.
Sang Hyun is a devout, honourable priest; respected by his colleagues and followers, and faithful in his service to the church. Troubled by the extreme pain and suffering that many people have to endure, he makes the somewhat ill-advised decision to volunteer for a dangerous medical experiment that could - and does - go terribly wrong. Left with a disease akin to leprosy, and sentenced to a slow, painful death, Hyun receives a random blood transfusion which has a strange effect on him, temporarily curing him of his ailments, but giving him an insatiable thirst for blood. Despite gaining a following of worshippers who believe he has the powers of a biblical healer, Hyun realises the truth is that he has been turned into a vampire. Initially attempting to satisfy his 'bloodlust' through drinking manageable amounts from comatose patients on life-support in hospitals, he soon finds himself drawn to Tae Ju, the repressed, quirky young wife of his ailing childhood friend. Will the wayward vampire priest be able to resist his lusting for sex and blood?
In his own typically punishing manner, Park Chan Wook has brought us yet another tale of a (both physically and mentally) tortured soul following on from his seminal Vengeance Trilogy. But this is far from the tortured Angel, or Twi-'lites' of the past few years, instead painting a far more authentic portrait of inner turmoil, cleverly explored within the confines of the Church. He breaks boundaries, does not conform to formula (except in the most basic sense, keeping only the vampire staples of drinking blood, immortality and aversion to sunlight and discarding the rest) and offers up a completely different take on the premise.
The result is an original, claustrophobic addition to a genre that has recently been in need of some fresh blood. Not wholly unlike the unusual Swedish horror, Let the Right One In (another movie shamefully receiving a wholly unnecessary, fast-turnaround, Hollywood remake), especially in terms of grim sentiment and extremely dark humour, Thirst pulls no punches in its vicious portrayal of the consequences of requiring blood for sustenance. Both humans and vampires are represented by some pretty immoral individuals; deviant, often abhorrent behaviour crossing sexes and species.
However, despite offering a nice new spin on the familiar genre traits, Thirst just does not quite work as a whole. It meanders along at a snail's pace (made worse by this largely dialogue-extended 12 minute longer Director's Cut) which will often have you looking at your watch. During this time you get some real gems: classic, Old Boy-calibre, Park Chan Wook sequences (like the scene where the lead character gets his head stuck in a car windshield, or the handheld-camera point-of-view shots of him jumping across the rooftops) and you also get some truly odd moments (again, at Directorial trademark), but in between there is far too much meandering, plodding filler. Sure, it is still stylish in the interim, and it could be justified as adding to the character development but, honestly, there even isn't all that much of that going on. Although the original ideas make for a decent premise, a cleverly twisted opening gambit and ensuing character structure, the resultant development is pretty non-existent. Ninety minutes in and you won't be happy that you have nearly an hour to go; and the whole third act could do with some serious trimming, with far too much fat padding the story on the way to the decent enough climax.
And whilst the characters are pretty unique - in typical Park Chan Wook fashion - they do suffer from the same curse that many of Wooks protagonists have as well: they are neither sympathetic nor particularly likeable. Aside from Oldboy himself, Wook has seldom found himself a perfect lead, and whilst Song Kang Ho brings a suitable sense of authenticity to the role of the righteous priest, tortured by his 'gift', he is no Choi Min-Sik. Following the plight of his vampiric man of the cloth, and watching the atypical development of his relationship with Kim Ok Bin's innocent-young-girl-who-is-far-from-innocent only sustains interest for a while. Then, after a bout of sex and violence, things start to get a little dull.
So Thirst is definitely a movie peppered by flash moments of excellence: standout scenes that are perfectly framed, perfectly captured and clearly the trademark of the Director. It is just unfortunate that it does not have quite enough gut-punching brutality, scene-stealing charisma, or engaging plot twists to completely sustain interest over what is an unnecessarily padded 144 minute runtime. Whilst not quite reinventing the genre like Let the Right One In, it still cleverly manipulates staple preconceptions, relentlessly playing on the numerous inherent conflicts borne out of the unholy union between vampiric demonism and religion. It's just a shame that such an interesting premise - in fact, such an interest first act - fails to deliver as the narrative progresses. Thirst is quirky, offbeat, with black humour and hints of everything else you would expect from a Park Chan Wook film. But as a whole, it just does not work, leaving you really quite drained after two and a half hours of bleak bloodletting.