We’re in serious danger of finally killing off the vampire, having reduced it first to fight fodder for leather-clad super models, and then to a glittery masturbation aid for sullen teenagers. If Dracula arose from the crypt today he’d last about two seconds before somebody kicked his head off with a stiletto or bored him to ashes with shitty dialogue. Now more than ever it’s time to remember that the vampire, when done right, is the greatest of movie monsters, and in this spirit we turn to Thirst (or Bakjwi); a fascinating vampire tale told by legendary director Park Chan-wook, which asks the simple question— can you continue to lead a moral existence while thirsting for human blood?
The answer, as protagonist Sang-Hyun discovers, is most emphatically no. A noble priest who contracts vampirism from a blood transfusion, Sang-Hyun quickly finds he must feed on human blood or suffer a slow and painful death. As he finds himself ever stretching his moral boundaries to quench his thirst, he soon discovers that he is less able dismiss his inner self-doubt. It’s not long before he embarks on an affair with Tae-Ju— desperate, passionate, and the wife of his jovial childhood friend, Kang-woo.
Here the inevitable rule of noir comes into play, and before you know it the former priest and his femme fatale are locked in a downward spiral of their own making, first leading to the murder of Kang-woo and eventually to the mercy-killing a Tae-ju gone mad with grief. The wonderful thing about Park Chan-wook though is that when he wants to explore a theme, he rarely stops until he reaches the bottom— and a lonely Sang-Hyun revives Tae-ju as a vampire, unleashing a further, much less controllable evil on the world.
Thematically, Thirst is spot on. I’ve always been intrigued by Vampire movies that explore the process of suddenly being physically compelled to prey on the denizens of your former life— exploring both the alien mindset of a serial killer and the tragic isolation of the physically or mentally ill. Sang-Hyun does his best to lead a normal life, trying to sate his blood desire without hurting anyone— such as visiting coma patients and offering a unique right-to-die service for suicides— but the stress of the lifestyle quickly takes its toll, robbing Sang-Hyun of his resolve, his identity and his Catholic faith. As always, a weak man falling into the arms of a driven woman does not work out well in movies, and when Sang-Hyun revives Tae-ju as a vampire, he quickly realises his mistake as she adapts to the life of the night with savage vigour. In his last moral act, he resolves to destroy the both of them.
The charm of Thirst isn’t just in its fresh yet respectful take on vampirism, but in the inimitable directorial style of Park Chan-wook. Filming with what feels like an almost sociopathic stoicism, the sex, violence and madness that crop up in the movie are presented so matter of factly that you can’t help but feel like co-conspirer in Sang-Hyun’s misadventures. With the tale unfolding in a slow, maudlin sort of way, the instances of horror are made that much more uncomfortable and shocking, and the characters are so well realised that the whole movie has an eerie sort of plausibility to it.
Like most of Park Chan-Wook’s movies, Thirst is a beautifully presented film, filmed with an almost analytic detachment, and there are few more interesting perspectives on the vampire mythos. I urge you to give it a watch.