Thirst [Bakjwi]
d. Park Chan-Wook / Korea / 2008 / 133 mins
Viewed at: Rio Cinema (Dalston, UK)

Thirst is the latest effort from popular South Korean filmmaker (and fanboy fave) Park Chan-wook, he of JSA (2000) and the Vengeance Trilogy (2002-5).

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a monastic priest who, fed up with the pain and suffering surrounding him, signs up for an experimental treatment in Africa in an attempt to cure the deadly Emmanuel Virus. When the experiment goes horribly wrong, Sang-hyun faces certain death, but makes a rapid, miraculous recovery after receiving a blood transfusion.

Returning to his parish following this ‘miracle’, the belief in his healing power sees the congregation flourish, and amongst the new parishioners is Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), a childhood friend. Sang-hyun is invited to Kang-woo’s weekly Mahjong game, which is also attended his mother (Kim Hae-sook) and his wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Lusting after Tae-ju, Sang-hyun revokes his lifelong monastic ways and the pair indulge in pleasures of the flesh, sparking a relapse of the virus, after which Sang-hyun awakes to blistering sunlight and an almost unquenchable thirst for human blood: the transfusion (and, presumably, the transgression) has made him a vampire. A tale of lust, faith, devotion, belief and desire, Thirst is Park Chan-wook’s twisted take on the vampire genre, blood-sucking mayhem as only he can do it.

The ‘thirst’ of the title refers not simply to a vampire’s thirst for blood, but also to a primal desire for lust, a thirst for flesh in all its forms. In many ways, Thirst foregrounds the kind of carnal eroticism that underpins the whole vampire genre. But unlike, say, the Twilight films, where the vampiric state stands in for more ‘unacceptable’ social engagements (such as promiscious sex), Thirst foregrounds its vampiric lustiness quite explicitly.

Aside from blood, other liquids play a central role in Thirst. As with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), water once again exists in as a site of death/baptism, with Sang-hyun and Tae-ju murdering Kang-woo on a fishing trip. Having reported him missing after weighing him down in the lake, the appearance of Kang-woo in Tae-ju’s subsequent hallucinations are all rather water-logged. Water also exists as a symbolic element in the film’s final scene, which – more than a little reminiscent of the climactic moments of another recent vampire flick, 30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007) – takes place on a ocean clifftop.

Extra sensory perceptions (or deficiencies) are another element in many of Park’s films, from the deaf-mute in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance to the cast of characters that inhabit a mental hospital in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006). More specifically, the privilege of sight (or vision) is an important element for Park. His debut feature The Moon is…the Sun’s Dream (1992) centres upon a Busan gangster whose half-brother is a successful photographer, with one of his photographs playing a pivotal role in the plot. Similarly, the protagonist of Cut, Park’s contribution to the Three… Extremes (2004) horror collaboration, was a film director.

The privilege of sight and vision is also prevalent in Thirst, from Tae-ju’s hallucinations of her dead husband to the blindness afflicting Sang-hyun’s monastic mentor and adoptive father. Tae-ju also exercises her own control over the privilege of sight in two key moments – using her hands to cover Sang-hyun’s priestly gaze during their initial sexual encounter, and, having become a vampire herself, repeating the gesture whilst attacking one of her later victims.

Anyone who has seen a Park Chan-Wook film knows that he has a willful disregard for conventional narrative structure, and that continues with Thirst. It may be a little overdone, slightly too long and even a little bit dull in parts, but – rest assured – Park hasn’t lost any of that visual flair for which he is known and loved. In a similar sense, the use of sound in Thirst was more than impressive, with every slurp of blood adding a minute, audible detail. Thirst aint perfect, but if you’re sick of the soulless ‘vampire-hotties’ of Twilight and want some proper ass-kicking vampire action, this one might be for you.

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