Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.
There are some myths that I think are endlessly mutable into something new while retaining a sense of the old. The Frankenstein story, for instance, has been reformulated and recrafted hundreds of times into movies as diverse as Re-Animator, Splice, and Ex Machina. Vampire myths are pervasive as well in the sense that I think just about every culture has some type of vampire story, and these are in many ways just as varied. Because of that, it’s always fun to see a new take on the story. Thirst (or Bakjwi if you prefer the Korean) is rooted in the classic vampire story, but just as much a new take on that story.
The truth is that I like just about everything about Thirst. I love the fact that the vampirism is never really explained—it’s just something that happens. I like that it rather aggressively addresses the hypocrisy of religion (specifically Catholicism) at its core and in the practice of it. This is a smart movie hiding in the guise of a supernatural thriller with erotic overtones. It’s a reminder of just how good Park Chan-wook is with great material, and this is great material.
We begin with Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a priest who evidently has something of a martyr complex. He offers himself up for testing in the treatment of a new virus (shades of our current pandemic!) in the hope of assisting in finding a cure. He is deliberately infected with the disease, and like everyone else infected, he quickly deteriorates. But Sang-hyun experiences something akin to a miracle. After a transfusion, he is cured. As a miraculously cured priest, Sang-hyun becomes something akin to a living saint.
This new status brings him back into contact with his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), Kang-woo’s mother Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook), and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Kang-woo is perpetually ill and coddled by his mother, and we soon learn that Tae-ju is treated much more like a servant than a wife and daughter-in-law. We also see an immediate attraction between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun.
What we soon discover is that Sang-hyun has only temporarily been cured of the terrible virus. The blisters that mark the disease reappear, and can only be removed by the consumption of blood. Sang-hyun initially drains blood from patients at the hospital where he works, only taking blood from patients in comas so that he will not be noticed. He also discovers that he has many of the traditional strengths and weaknesses of vampires—he is strong, for instance, and also can’t be out in sunlight. At this same time, he begins an affair with Tae-ju, and the two start to plot against Kang-woo.
I don’t want to get any deeper into the plot of Thirst. It’s not really a movie to have spoiled, especially since the final act is tremendously disturbing and best experienced without any previous knowledge.
What makes Thirst so interesting to me is exactly how it explores the questions it wants to. We are presented with Sang-hyun who is essentially a good and decent man. While his his involvement in the experiment that leads to his vampirism may have been done for some ulterior motive and desire to be a martyr, it is just as likely that it was motivated by good and decent impulses. When he discovers his vampirism, he goes for as long as he can without killing needlessly. And yet he’s also willing to immediately forsake one of his central vows for no reason stronger than the fact that he wants to. That he is so singularly flawed and simultaneously becomes a figure of worship is both a fascinating idea and a devastating critique of religious belief and the gullibility of the religious in the main.
The deeper question that I think Thirst brings up is one of the nature of morality. How much of our morality comes from our own needs and desires? Sang-hyun is central in this question as our vampire. He is depicted as a priest as being a truly moral man, someone who desires only to benefit humanity. But his morality becomes more fluid once his life is at risk. When the blisters and the disease return, he has no real moral qualms in stealing blood from unwilling and unknowing victims. This is, to him, a victimless crime. The victims are unware that they have lost anything, and he even says at one point that one of his “donors” would do so willingly were he awake. His flouting of his own rules regarding his own chastity is harder to figure. Is it attributable to the vampirism, or is it a factor of his own desires coming to the surface?
If there is a flaw in Thirst, it’s that it takes a very long time to get where it wants to go. Much of the first two acts are really just set-up for the third and final act. It feels like there could be a great deal more here in terms of where the film goes, were it not done at such a leisurely pace.
That’s a small flaw, though, and one that I don’t really mind. Thirst is about as good a variation on the classic vampire story as you’re going to find.
Why to watch Thirst: A very interesting take on the vampire myth.
Why not to watch: It’s slow to get to where it wants to go.