REVIEW: 박쥐 [Thirst] [2009]

“The Bandaged Saint”

Definitely not for everyone, 박쥐 [Thirst] is an interesting, intelligent take on the vampire genre. By using this horror film affliction, director Chan-wook Park weaves a parable on religion and faith, showing how two people on both ends of the spectrum value life itself. All the tropes are here, as the diseased characters have super-human strength, must stay out of the sunlight, and consume blood for sustenance. What they have not lost, however, is their humanity, or lack there of, from their past lives. There is no better or more controversially way to express all this than through the eyes or a priest—a man of God turned beast of evil. How does he react to his need for blood and the flesh? How does he come to grips with being a creature so close to the gates of hell? How does he reconcile his new life and passions with the moral compass he has long had pointing true? It is all touched upon within this adult romantic nightmare, perhaps not always giving us answers, but definitely stimulating our thoughts and feelings about both life and death.

Priest Sang-hyun works in hospitals, giving last rites and helping the infirmed cope with their mortality. After one more death witnessed, he decides he must leave and do something for the good of humanity, something that could help save people. A blind priest that has acted like a father to him tries his best to dissuade the decision, pleading with him once more to become a doctor and one day heal his eyes, but it falls on deaf ears. Sang-Hyun goes to an experimental facility that is working on an answer for an incurable disease called EV. The question of suicide, which plays a major part in the proceedings, comes into play initially at this time. Spoken as ‘martyrdom for the devil’ to a parishioner, the priest is asked at the facility whether his intentions of being a volunteer with this disease is to perform some sort of elaborate euthanasia on himself. The question doesn’t even cross his mind, though, he has his prayer and God to get him through the ordeal, hopefully surviving and helping to create a cure for all. We watch the blisters form and the blood pore from his mouth, eventually leading to a flatline and pronouncement of death before, like Lazarus, he rises alive once more. Unaware at first until deducing through a series of tests, this single survivor from the EV test group finds that the blood transfusion given to him has turned him into a vampire.

The story truly begins here as Sang-hyun crosses paths with an old acquaintance in Kang-woo and his family. As a young orphan, Lady Ra fed him noodles and Kang-woo was his friend. Tae-ju, who was thought to be a daughter, ends up being an adopted ward who has since become wife to her ‘brother’, yet ultimately is more slave dog than true member of the family. Sang-hyun walks into all this just as the power of the blood pumping within his veins is taking control. And this is where the moral ambiguity comes into play, creating an awkward number of scenes depicting this man of the cloth succumbing to the flesh. Constantly flogging himself for his arousal and impure thoughts, he still finds an unnatural attraction to Tae-ju, which she shares. Leading to one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film—both for the fact he is a priest while she is married to a man right down the hallway and for the vampiric overtones of him doing his best to suppress the desire to sink his teeth into her shoulder—the union bonds them forever. But he values life too much and while no longer considering himself a priest, due to the fact he is sleeping with this women as often as he can, he still will not allow himself to murder for food. Instead, he feeds from a patient in a coma at the hospital, a man that admitted his charitable ways in helping the hungry to him.

Thirst is shot with precise attention to detail, leading our eyes exactly where the filmmakers would like them to go. Park is a master of tone and deliberate subtlety, at times making the film drag, but ultimately lending it an artistic aesthetic that is his own. Everything leads up to the moment where Tae-ju finally becomes a vampire herself. Being a woman of no faith thanks to the harsh, unloving upbringing she had, death is death to her, there is no afterlife. So, these two lovers evolve to form a juxtaposition of true bloodlust and humane compassion. Sang-hyun begins to help people kill themselves in order to take their blood, now providing a service that his former self was very much against, while Tae-ju decides to go out and seek prey, reveling in the sport of it all. The final act depicting these two—both lovers and enemies at once—is by far the strongest portion of the film. Everything pent up in their lives before is allowed to come through unchecked, leading to the only conclusion that would have fit, and I applaud Park for giving us the beautifully tragic finale that he does.

Kang-ho Song is fantastic as Sang-hyun, constantly internalizing his true self in order to be a better man. What he has become slowly takes over and the pain and suffering of the interior battle is permanently etched on his face. As Tae-ju, Ok-bin Kim is both beautiful and darkly frightening. This meek young girl, trapped in a family that she runs away from each night, pretending to sleepwalk, cannot deny her desire for this priest she knew years before as a young man. Her wanting him supercedes any fear of what he is and she uses his own desires for her benefit, helping her sever the familial bonds keeping her down, the guilt of which haunts them both in some stunningly shot sequences of nightmarish imagery soaked in water and led by Ha-kyun Shin’s Kang-woo’s grinning laughter. Not only do the two evolve in demeanor and action, though, they also alter in visual aesthetic. Park and company changes their wardrobe and appearance once they acclimate to being vampires, creating confident and indestructible versions of their former selves. The wirework that allows for their abilities and strength to be shown is well-orchestrated and darkly comic at times—like much of the film—especially when lifting things. But Park Chan-wook always keeps an underlying humor in his films, making their tragic subject matter even bleaker. Thirst is no different, once again giving us something to think about and process as each second passes; no one would ever call his work a walk in the park.

박쥐 [Thirst] 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Song Kang-ho stars as “Sang-hyun” in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Focus Features
[2] Kim Ok-vin stars as Tae-ju in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Focus Features


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.