It is difficult for filmmakers to come up with new or original vampire stories, seeing as how it had been done and re-done so many times by about the 1960s. All the tropes have been established and adhered to: blood sucking, seduction, avoidance of sunlight, mirrors, crosses… the list goes on. In 2009, Park Chan-wook released a complex, fun, and bloody entry into the vampire legacy with the South Korean picture Thirst. The film succeeds in mixing the hallmarks of the sub-genre with a religious, familial narrative and distinctive visual style. The result is just as much an entry in the oeuvre of a contemporary auteur as it is a vampire film that will likely be remembered and discussed for quite some time.
Vaguely based on Emile Zola’s novel of passion, adultery, and double-crosses, Therese Raquin (1868), Thirst is just as much a film about love, romance, and sex as it is about fear and horror. We follow a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) who partakes in missionary work in Africa, agreeing to be injected with the deadly Emmanuel Virus in order for doctors to learn more about it and possibly find a cure. He becomes the one in five hundred people who survives the disease, although this turns out to be the result of a transfusion spiked with vampiric power. Sang-hyun returns to Korea, happening to meet the family of an old, sickly friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). Eventually the vampire priest begins having an affair with Kang-woo’s haggard and oppressed wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). The conflict between this unlikely couple of torrid lovers is at the core of Thirst.
Tae-ju may be my favorite character found in a Park Chan-wook film. An orphan beaten down by life and taken advantage of by a boorish, alcoholic mother-in-law, Tae-ju is obligated to take care of her man-baby husband who always seems to be suffering from some illness. She lies restlessly awake at night, or suffers from bouts of sleep-walking, running barefoot in the seemingly abandoned city streets. When she and Sang-hyun start to get intimate, Tae-ju is clearly the one in control sexually, but it becomes apparent that supernatural vampire traits overcome any kind of control within human boundaries. The two violent lovers continually battle each other perhaps more than they make love either as humans or super-humans.
Park Chan-wook has a preoccupation with emotionally shattered and troubled men. This is not to say these man are weak, as they often use physical violence quite proficiently as their stories unfold. Yet quite often their emotional existence is either under-developed or atrophied by trauma. The leading romantic couple in Thirst resembles the tight-knit siblings in Park’s first film. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) is about an indecisive deaf man Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) who kidnaps a child in order to demand money to be used for his sister’s kidney transplant. In turn, the sister Yeong-mi Cha (Doona Bae) has commonalities with Tae-ju. The director’s most famous character Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), the protagonist of Oldboy (2003) is another shattered and brooding man who Sang-hyun walks in the footsteps of, although there is clearly a vast difference between the two as well.
Before he is kidnapped and psychologically tortured, Oh Dae-su is a cavalier man who is inattentive to his family. Sang-hyun of Thirst is a humble priest who lives his life trying to do good. They both possess a vulnerability that comes out within interactions with women, who challenge them to be better, while also making their lives more complex and difficult. An interesting thing about Thirst is that it is about a priest learning to become “a man” (in the sense of traditional masculinity), by way of becoming a vampire. Many vampire films are more about a man becoming a larger than life, supernatural being. Instead of stalking victims in the darkness, Sang-hyun enters as a kind of interloper into a domestic, nuclear family formation, which he had previously abandoned for the church. This also comes with his burgeoning and guilt-fueled sexuality that he tries to suppress in the face of his clear attraction to Tae-ju.
The reason Tae-ju is such a rich and memorable character stems from the wisdom and jadedness that comes with being a working class woman who basically lives to serve others, mainly her family. From the start we can tell she is fed up with her life, but really has nothing else to turn to–until a handsome vampire priest comes along. She is trapped, yet strong, working at a store specializing in hanboks–traditional Korean dresses–by day, and lying awake at night, taking care of her husband and family members for all of the time in between. The anger she feels is easily identifiable, and when it becomes clear that she and Sang-hyun see something in each other, the tension thickens palpably.
The true colors of our two main characters are not fully saturated until late in the picture, after Sang-hyun turns Tae-ju into a vampire. Their personalities com to a head as they skip around on rooftops of the city, using superhuman strength and agility (and computer generated effects) to have it out, and display their monstrous nature. As Sang-hyun says in the sequence leading up to his turning of Tae-ju, “A blood thirsty beast is growling inside me! But I tiptoed around afraid to hurt anyone.” Part of his cautious attitude comes from his religious moral background, trying to help people even if he is exhausted and bitter. Yet as he says, another reason he does not prey on the living in a lethal or traumatic way is because of fear. He is a man with moral prohibitions limiting his entire life who is afraid what he may find when he, for example, begins a sexual relationship or indulges in his vampiric proclivities.
Tae-ju does not have this same fear. She quickly begins luring humans into her spider’s web of sorts, using brutal force to drain her victims of blood. Here is a person who has been receiving the short end of the stick for her whole life, finally given the opportunity to become a dominant force in day to day life. Tae-ju has no problem with or guilt over taking pleasure from her kills. She embraces the fact that she is now a hunter, and no longer even human. Yet with both her and Sang-hyun, spectators can also see a frustration and inconsolable sadness present in these beings who may end up living for hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps the most tortured screen vampire is Nosferatu, particularly in the Herzog version of the story, given lines like “time is an abyss… profound as a thousand nights.” The vampires of Thirst can only begin to relate.
Park Chan-wook’s ability to create great, nuanced characters, particularly vulnerable men and robust women, may be my favorite thing about the filmmaker’s output, but it is always worth mentioning the sweetness of his visual style as well. The atmosphere of the family home in Thirst is memorable and a feast for the eyes of sorts, feeling partially retro yet also timeless in other instances. It is reminiscent of the texture seen in the bizarre hotel room-prison Oh Dae-su is confined to in Oldboy, only with a lot more wood panelling and patterned recliners. After Sang-hyun and Tae-ju are both vampires, they paint one of the rooms completely white, bright fluorescent lights buzzing down on them, surely an attempt to rebound from a subterranean, evening lifestyle. It is slightly surreal, and a of great practical use once blood starts spurting, making hard contrasts between the clean whites and gurgling reds. Some of the images in Thirst are unforgettable, which is something more and more difficult to say as motion pictures proliferate throughout our culture. It is harder to create imagery that can be stared at for long amounts of time, yet Park Chan-wook seems to have no problem figuring out what works.