When the Catholic Church in Korea tries to cure a disease, the treatment has unexpected consequences: vampires – of a sort. Unconventional, uncomfortable, shocking, hysterical, and fantastically entertaining, Thirst (Bakjwi) made me squirm with stomach-turning delight.
Unsatisfied with his life, Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) agrees to volunteer for a life-threatening medical experiment. The experiment goes as planned but the treatments have a serious side effect for Father Sang-hyeon; it turns him into a vampire with thirsts for more than just blood. The Father does his best to feed his hunger ethically, but eventually, he abandons ethics and begins to make more and more morally ambiguous decisions, the worst of which surrounds his childhood crush, the beautiful, Cinderella-esque, Tae-ju (Ok-vin Kim). Tae-joo has lived with her drunken, slightly masochistic mother-in-law Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim) and her sniveling, snotty, sickly son Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) since she was a girl.
Thirst does start off slowly and dares the audience to believe that this will be a run of the mill, mystical Catholic-Church-creates-vampires movie. Slowly, the director, actors and writers walk the audience down a seemingly safe path of overplayed mediocrity. It isn’t until I walk directly into their trap that I realized I’d been duped. Not only is Thirst the most original vampire movie I’ve ever seen, it manages to do so while still covering necessary vampire themes and disarms the audience by making their seat feel like it shifted underneath them.
Director and writer Chan-wook Park and writer Seo-Gyeong Jeong never miss an opportunity make the audience squirm in their seats. There are graphic, yet ill at ease sex scenes that barely register as sexual at all. The relationship between several of the characters left me wondering if the lot of them had been dropped on their head as babies. By far, the most discomfort I felt was when I was laughing at things that in real life are not supposed to be funny.
Chan-wook Park and Seo-Gyeong Jeong turn scene after scene from tragic to tickling. Anyone who isn’t a sociopath will laugh, feel guilty about laughing, the laugh some more. Most specifically, any scene with blood was at the same time horrifying and hysterical. Where the vampire is in relation to the blood-letter takes the edge off the fact that the vampire is sucking vital blood from the person’s body.
As soon as the laughter has ceased though, serious topics slip in. Questions of killing, domestic violence, sexual abuse, faith, or a lack thereof, and unexpected changes in the personality of characters seep in through the skin like a salamander breathes. Due to the unconventional story-telling, it’s nearly impossible for an audience member to defend themselves from the revolting myriad of incoming emotions.
My usually stoaic husband wiggled as much as I did, often covering his mouth because he was utterly floored by some of the kill scenes in Thirst and he wasn’t alone. Most of the audience was clinging to their partner, shifting in their seat, giggling, breathing heavy and holding their hands up to their eyes with their fingers spread. “Eeew” and “ha-ha” could be heard at the same time by viewers unable to control their reactions.
There is a strange attention to how Thirst looks by the director. He doesn’t shy away from strange camera angles, movements or settings. Innocent props become sinister. There is a simple change of scenery late in the movie that changes the entire mood and symbolizes a change in the direction of the characters.
During some parts in the beginning, the acting by Kang-ho Song and Ok-vin Kim leave much to be desired. I don’t know if the director wanted them to be horrible on purpose to take the audience off their guard, but it really just came across as ridiculous, kludgy and strange. If you hang in there, I promise, the movie picks up and will shake the senses of even the most reserved.
I have never had so much fun being revolted. Every time I think of the movie, I shift in my seat and think ICK with a smile on my face right before I get the chill up my spine. This subtitled Korean gem, Thirst, will satisfy those who love a good story and those who love good horror. Spine crawling, seat jerking and satisfying, Thirst is a must see! If your local small run theater is not showing this, call them and demand they do!