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Fright Fest 2018: Thirst (2009)

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(This review contains SPOILERS.)

In most bloodsucking horror fare, narcissism and vampirism make for logical bedfellows – after all, how wouldn’t immortality place a chip on the inheritor’s shoulder? Even characters as ingratiating as those in Daughters of Darkness hint at an egotism stemming from their ability to live life on their own terms. Whether narcissism is conveyed through a guise of modesty or grandiosity, it all boils down to one unified sentiment: “fuck you – I can do whatever I want.”

Park Chan-wook’s Thirst takes vampiric narcissism to unpredictable places. Three-quarters of the way through my most recent viewing, I jotted down “no likeable characters” in my notes – surprised that it had taken me that long to consciously notice. Perhaps it’s the clever metaphor of vampirism as a stand-in for human relationships – and the ecstasy and pain contained within – that, despite all the gory and surrealistic imagery on display, grounds the plot in a sense of reality. 

While the director’s approach is as hyper-stylized as ever, his use of color-saturated images and grandstanding musical cues is complementary to the story and characters. Observe the nauseated green glow of hospital lighting as a vampire uses an intravenous tube as a straw, underlining the concept of vampirism as disease; or the exuberant, Danny Elfman-esque score as a vampire demonstrates the wonders of levitation to his paramour.

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In its own deceptively simple way, the title itself is loaded with meaning: the human thirst for water; the classical vampiric thirst for blood; but also the narcissistic want of power over people and things. The film explores vampirism as an exhilarating honeymoon at first, but – in continuing the all-too-real links to flawed humanity – becomes a balancing act…not unlike the factors that determine the success or failure of a relationship.

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is both Dracula and Van Helsing, a young yet disillusioned priest who, through volunteering to be injected with the terminal “Emmanuel Virus” (solidifying a subtext of martyrdom), receives a blood transfusion that reverses the process, but leaves him with vampiric traits. His blind, wheelchair-bound mentor, Father Roh (Park In-hwan) is fascinated when he – in Christ-like fashion – reveals his newly self-healing body, and in turn becomes lulled by the promise of eternal life. As does a tent community of ailing citizens. Abandoning the clergy, Sang-hyun ingratiates himself to a woman from his old neighborhood, Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook), who is the guardian of teenaged orphan Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who is married to her sick son – and Sang-hyun’s childhood friend – Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). When Sang-hyun makes a hospital visit that cures the obnoxious Kang-woo of a terminal illness, he is welcomed into the home, bonding with friends of the family (including a retired police chief) over weekly games of Mahjong.

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As the film progresses, Chan-wook implicates everyone in Sang-hyun’s business, suggesting the impossibility of things being any other way. Perhaps, by consequence of a vampire’s origin with humanity, they are bound by the same flaws in emotion and reason, thus making them doomed creatures.

A sense of the forbidden permeates Thirst. Sang-hyun’s attraction to Tae-ju is depicted as something that could subject his soul to eternal damnation (on several occasions, he flagellates himself to suppress carnal desires); however, when he kills Father Roh in order to feed, his personality becomes one of reckless rebellion (not unlike a teenage badass looking to court a like-minded teenage badass). When he introduces Tae-ju to the world of immortality, their lustful romance grows complicated, leading to drama that escalates to guilt when Sang-hyun assists her in drowning Kang-woo in a mist-shrouded lake one night.

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By presenting the characters as a tightly-knit community, Chan-wook demonstrates less the destructive power of vampirism than the destructive power of toxic personalities and relationships, regardless of where you fall on the existential plane. Sang-hyun is selfish in his desires (underlined when he kills Father Roh), and ingratiates himself to the younger and less mature Tae-ju, who’s revealed to have suffered a rough childhood. Once Sang-hyun turns her, she becomes a late-night thrill seeker, preying on random people out of greedy bloodlust, but also the thrill of killing with abandon – impervious to the restrictions of law (whether moral, ethical, spiritual, or natural), it is indeed the “fuck you – I can do whatever I want” mentality at play.

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Unlike traditional vampire cinema, wherein the Van Helsing character embodies humanity’s collective desire to see a supernatural “other” vanquished, Sang-hyun and Tae-ju set upon a path of which there is only one exit. The final minutes of Thirst – in all their tragicomic and absurd glory – have as much to do with two characters coming to terms with the lives they’ve destroyed in the name of transforming themselves into something “more human than human,” as they do with subverting the clichés of vampire lore overall. We’ve spent far too long with these characters and their transgressions to see them get off easy. One can imagine Chan-wook using the extended sequence as a shrewd corollary to “The Stages of Grief,” with Sang-hyun and Tae-ju finally finding their humanity, long after they’ve abandoned all hope of it.

4 out of 5 stars

Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) co-hosts the biweekly horror podcast, THE LAST KNOCK, alongside Billy Crash (aka William Prystauk). He can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.

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