Emile Zola never wrote a vampire flick, but if he had, we can assume it would have resembled Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. This is in part because the Korean writer-director’s film is based (very loosely) on an early Zola novel, Therese Raquin, and is, to the best of my knowledge, the only vampire movie to bear this distinction. But there are other echoes as well. Zola examined the darker side of family life: violence, greed, mental illness, alcoholism, and other “accidents” of the “nerves and blood.” The vision Park has laid out in films such as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance has a still harsher, exaggerated brutality, as if by pushing the boundaries of savage metaphor he can shed light on the quieter tragedies of everyday life. Zola had his naturalism; Park, his super-naturalism.
Thirst is not an easy film to nail down, a moody, episodic horror movie that is also, at various times, a portrait of family dysfunction, a James M. Cainian noir, a tragic love story, a comedy of manners, and an erotic exploration. The tale centers on a priest named Sang-hyun, played by Korean star Kang-ho Song (The Host). Depressed at the limited good he can accomplish as a spiritual counselor at a hospital, he volunteers himself as a vaccine test subject for a smallpox-like disease called the Emmanuel virus, or EV. He survives, but at a cost, contracting both EV and, from the blood transfusion that saved his life, vampirism. The two afflictions operate in delicate counterpoint: When Sang-hyun’s hands and face begin erupting in EV pustules, only human blood can make them recede and restore him to health.
At first, the priest obtains this blood without shedding it. He steals plasma bags from the hospital or lies, like a suckling infant, next to the cot of a coma victim he once tended, daintily sipping his ruby sustenance through an IV tube. (Embedded in his condition is an inside joke: In Zola’s novel, the principle characters were each intended to stand in for one of the four humors, with Sang-hyun’s predecessor representing “Sanguine.” Park, with customary relish, upgrades him to sanguinary.)
Sang-hyun’s carnal appetites begin to multiply, however, once he comes to know Tae-ju (Ok-vin Kim), an unhappy young woman treated like a servant by her lazy, weak-minded husband (Ha-kyun Shin) and domineering mother-in-law (Hae-sook Kim). “I don’t want to keep my disease a secret from you,” Sang-hyun tells her after they have sex for the first time--he is, as one might anticipate, a biter--and though she is initially repulsed, he eventually persuades her that “being a vampire is just like having a different palate.” In any case, the fast-lapsing priest fulfills Tae-ju’s desperate needs for passion, for devotion, and, perhaps, for a way out of her domestic prison.
In keeping with the rest of Park’s oeuvre, Thirst is not for the squeamish. It is a tale told in blood: the blood of the Lamb, the blood of the vampire, blood that is vomited, blood that is drunk, blood from punctured throats and severed extremities, blood that blooms blue in arteries under the skin before erupting rich and red. If Park’s vampires lack fangs, it is only so that they may get better mileage out of fabric scissors, corkscrews, and any other pointy objects that come to hand. When, at one point, a room is painted stark white, one can be sure it is to provide sharper contrast with the coat of crimson yet to come.
Yet unlike most exercises in hematic excess--Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, for instance, or Tarantino’s Kill Bill--Thirst offers not the consolations of camp but the intensity of opera. There is nothing casual about Park’s incitements: The physical violence, however extreme, serves to underline the emotional violence. And even as the film meanders across genres, Park maintains a firm underlying structure and a close eye for detail, whether the social cues around a Mahjong table or the meticulous sexual pantomime between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju. The brutalizations of the flesh may shock onscreen, but what lingers in the mind afterward is the way the film bites deeper still.
It’s just this kind of underlying resonance that is missing from writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a film of stunning visual imagination that never quite succeeds in tapping its vast metaphoric potential. Aliens have come to Earth and, for once, the arrival gate for their city-sized starship is not Manhattan but the outskirts of Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg. How they got here and why remains obscure: The ship’s million or so bug-like inhabitants are malnourished and confused, and they seem to be without leadership or the technical know-how to get their craft back home.
As the ship floats above the baking plain like a Death Star in drydock, the aliens--called “prawns” by a largely unsympathetic public--form a sprawling shantytown below it, subsisting on garbage and whatever else they can barter. (Cat food, in particular, is an addictive delicacy.) There they stay for 20 years, until the human populace tires of them and hires a multinational corporation to relocate them to a refugee camp far removed from any registered voters. The situation grows more complicated, though, when the unassuming bureaucrat in charge of the relocation, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), accidentally sprays himself with an alien fuel that alters his DNA and gradually begins turning him into one of them.
Blomkamp borrows liberally--from “The X-Files,” Aliens, The Fly, Robocop, Close Encounters--and ties the elements together with a gritty palette of washed-out grays and browns. The documentary feel of the project is further enhanced by the unfamiliar setting and cast, enabling Blomkamp, just 30 years old, to deliver one of the more visually memorable sci-fi sagas of recent years.
Yet his means and ends seem somehow mismatched. The story is full of preposterous premises--why would machine fuel turn a man into a “prawn”? can anyone truly imagine we’d let a million-plus surly extraterrestrials wander semi-free next to a major city? if only aliens can use high-tech alien weaponry, then why don’t they, you know, use it?--yet Blomkamp invests the whole enterprise with somber conviction, tamping down any hint of whimsy or adventure. And while there are plenty of vague political allusions--about treatment of refugees, fear of the Other--none cohere into anything substantial. District 9 succeeds brilliantly as an exercise in style, but the style promises a level of substance the film never quite delivers.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.