Thirst: A Korean Vampire Story

By Lena Manka

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Thirst (or Bakjwi / 박쥐) is a 2009 Korean horror from Park Chan Wook (The Vengeance Trilogy, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, and The Handmaiden). It’s based on the novel Thérèse Raquin by the 19th-century French author, Émile Zola. And in terms of atmosphere, we could truly say it’s Thérèse Raquin meets Mr Vangance turned vampire.

Plot Summary…

An earnest Catholic priest, Father Sang Hyeon (Song Kang Ho) is a man of action, and as such, he seeks an opportunity to help those in need in a more of a practical way. Upon learning about medical experiments testing a vaccine for a deadly EV virus, he rushes to the site against the will of the Church. The treatment goes awry, however, and Fr Sang Hyeon can only be saved through a blood transfusion. As it turns out, the blood is tainted and he contracts vampirism.

When he feeds, the symptoms of the EV virus reverse, but only temporarily; they come back whenever he starts to run on empty.

That’s one way to do it, I suppose…

Tae Ju (Kim Ok Bin) is an orphan, taken up by Mrs Ra (Kim Hae Sook) and married off to her sick son out of convenience. The girl’s role is something between Cinderella ( minus the fairy godmother) and a piece of furniture. Her husband, Kang Woo (Shin Ha Kyun), a spoiled, childish half-wit, happens to be Fr Sang Hyon’s childhood friend, with whom he reunites unexpectedly in the hospital. The live of all four characters are thrown into a dark maelstorm, when the Reverend comes for a mahjong game, and, looking upon Tae Ju, senses blood and…something else.

Thirst: Books vs. Film…

The canvas for this story –  Thérèse Raquin – is an extremely bleak tale itself, and I daresay the film captures the atmosphere very well. Especially considering that it’s quite a leap from the reality of 19th-century France, to contemporary South Korea.

While Tae Ju as Therese has the right amount of sombre lethargy to her,  she definitely lacks passion, as does her husband. The love scenes seem awkward, to say the least. This is unfortunate as love scenes are crucial in the book and work well, but the development of the book-based plot is choppy and doesn’t make much sense. It’s as if Park wanted to cram everything in, but didn’t bother linking it all together or offering any coherent explanation for events.

The Main Problem With Thirst

Between the adaptation of the original story, the vampire elements to the plot, and the medical horror drama, the film is bloated. There are too many plots mixed together that aren’t blended at all. Also, the issue of the main character’s vampirism is a problem for two major reasons: we see vampirism as a challenge of faith, and simultaneously as a ‘diseasse’ with a medical origin.

At the same time, there’s a certain lack of depth to the film’s interpretation of the vampiric condition.

What is vampirism?

How is vampirism understood by Park Chan Wook?

There’s definitely a lot of blood and confusion, but not much else. The concept is really hard to grasp. Like every good bat fiction, it lacks a fundamental context. (The original title of the film literally means ‘bat’, yet it involves nothing of the kind, not even the compulsory pair of fangs).

Gore, Ghosts and Fangs…

While Thirst is not for the weak hearted, I’ve honestly seen better gore from Park Chan Wook.

The ghostly apparitions that torture the guilty lovers are one of the weakest points of this film. While the book treats the topic very seriously with true horror present in abundance, the book portrays these events as a series of childish tricks.

Why did the director see it fit to turn the ghost in a comedy character, rather than a grotesque? Especially given how sombre the whole movie is, it’s very jarring…
                  This stupid grin on the Kang Woo ghost’s face ruined it…

The protagonist’s transformation into a vampire is also quite mild and blurred. It lacks a defining point. What is truly interesting though, is the psychological development of the characters.

Father Sang Hyon, coming from the position of devout priest, with the earnest inner need to bring help and hope to his fellow humans, doesn’t seem to loose his firm beliefs despite his transformation. New questions arise, but he never questions his fundamental reality; his ‘spiritual compass’ stays the same. When he finally crosses all of his personal lines, he enters into a state of self-condemnation, followed by all-out rebellion against his faith. He also tries to convince his lover of his point of view, but ultimately decides on suicide, as the evidence of Tae Ju’s killing spree becomes impossible to hide. His anguish and helplessness are very plausible and are a highlight of the film.

The Nihilistic Perspective…

The different story is with Tae Ju. She exhibits an utterly nihilistic world view and is full of spite and resentment towards her husband and mother-in-law. Just like the inspiration novel’s protagonist, Tae Ju’s passionate and dark nature falls dormant in her everyday, half-slavish existence.

Her transformation doesn’t really give her any new, bestial qualities, it’s just a catalyst that reveals what she already is, deep down. What follows is a logical consequence of her no-longer suppressed cynicism. The detachment that characterises her from the very beginning changes from torpidity to unremorsed cruelty, as she is transformed into a vampire. The couple’s contrasting beliefs are what provokes their different ways of coping with their condition, and is an excuse of sorts for bringing up a series of philosophical and moral questions concerning boundaries, consequences, and good intentions (among others).

In Conclusion…

I can’t say Thirst is my favourite vampire film. Perhaps I’m too conservative, but personally, I need fangs and a good old ‘eternal night’ atmosphere. And I can’t really get over some serious screw ups in the adaptation from the book. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth watching.

Who should see it?

Vampire lovers.

Fans of Korean cinema in general, or Park Chan Wook in particular. Enthusiasts of 19th-century French novels/19th century novels/French novels. Anyone who enjoys quirky movies will love this film. It’s a genuine cultural fusion, made with care for details and theatrical ambience. And honestly, it’s not every film you can say that about. 


Lenas MankaLena Manka

A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer.

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