Blood Work

Park Chan-wook Revamps a Western Myth

by Matt Mazur

6 August 2009

Korean director Chan-wook's killer new action-dramadey borrows heavily from Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, successfully setting it apart from the current proliferation of watered-down vampire stories.
cover art

Thirst (Bakjwi)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook, Shin Ha-kyun, Park In-hwan, Oh Dal-soo, Song Young-chang

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 31 Jul 2009 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Oct 2009 (General release)

Review [5.Aug.2009]

We’re a culture that is obsessed with and hungry for vampire stories. Probably every man of my generation has, at some point in their lives, dressed up like Dracula for Halloween. We’ve all done the sinister laugh, dribbled the fake blood down our faces, and had the stupid white plastic fangs. Americans know vampires, right? If Park Chan-wook’s newest film, the thrilling Thirst has anything to say about it, Korea is about to become the newest authority on the subject.

In the preface to his naturalist epic Therese Raquin, Emile Zola claimed that he wanted to “study temperaments and not characters,” Chan-wook follows his cue with a bombastic work, full of excitement and heady ideas. Chan-wook’s film rearranges the traditional vampire myth that Americans seem to have taken possession of. Instead of following a rigid formula, the director gently adopts unexpected Western influences and lets them gently refract through the spectrum of working class Korean mores, as well as cannily depicting and destroying any sexual or religious taboos lingering in Asian cinema. The director, who grew up in a Catholic family, recently spoke to a small group of reporters in New York through a translator. “Every facial expression, every position and every noise they make, everything that they say [during the explicit sex scenes] is important and you are able to see these details and think about what these moments mean to them.”

“Historically, the Catholic Church has had a big role in fighting for democracy in Korea. There were Catholic nuns and priests that were approached to make sure that the details of what the main character does were correct.” He went on to say that he first became “interested in telling a story about a Catholic priest and when would be those moments when a Catholic priest might doubt his own faith. If he was ever tempted to commit a sin, what would he do to overcome that temptation? What if he was a vampire? At the same time he was trying to think of vampire films and priests roles in those. It’s always the same, in that they are the ‘vampire hunters’ or they drive out vampires, but they never become vampires.” Chan-wook said his film initially began as two separate films: one an adaptation of Raquin, the other a vampire flick: “What if I was to fuse these two separate films together? All of the blanks that were left in the vampire film were filled in by Zola’s novel.”

Borrowing heavily from the major dramatic elements of Zola’s work, Chan-wook updates the novel with a literal bloodlust. Those who prefer their creatures of the night to be a bit more like dancers in a sick ballet rather than the bland, graceless schtick of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, are going to eat Thirst up. Well, maybe drink. While he touches lightly on these Western influences, Chan-wook’s film is still firmly non-Western in spirit, creating a mood all it’s own with an unsettling blend of screwball-horror and an almost-obscene amount of syrupy red blood. Thirst, is probably not going to attract a typical American film-going audience that has been weaned, as of late, on pap such as True Blood or the abominable Twilight phenomenon. Those looking for a twee teen romance or a rehashing of the old familiar “Dracula-vants-to-suck-your-blood” tropes are likely going to check out early into this heady film’s two and a half hour running time.

The opening scene lingers on a tangled silhouette of leaves and branches, establishing a contemplative tone from the outset, hinting at the impending battle between light and dark that will be unleashed over the course of the bloody film. Sang-hyun (played by one of Korea’s biggest movie stars, Song Kang-ho) is a priest in flux, representing the temperament “sanguine”. “I want to save people,” says Sang-hyun to a fellow priest at his monastery, and soon after he impulsively heads off to Africa to take part in a bio-chemical lab’s experiments with an Ebola-like, incurable virus. Branches appear again like twisted bluish capillaries against the sky, and soon, Sang-hyun is puking up copious amounts of blood, and pulling off his fingernails with ease as his pustules pop and ooze. Then he dies. And then, as in all vampire legends, he is reborn, albeit confused. Is a priest “good” even after he becomes a vampire?

Six months later, he emerges a hero, a healer desired by all, wrapped up like a mummy and swamped by desperate miracle-seekers. In a completely show-stopping montage, set to unusual, almost baroque pop music, everything becomes amplified for Sang-hyun – he hears everything, he sees everything. Even down to the microbes crawling around the tiny droplets of sweat pooled on his arm. He can now see the purple veins pulsing beneath the almost translucent skin of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin, in an assured debut), a childhood acquaintance who he runs into many years later. She represents the “choleric” temperament, with her tangle of energy that sends her running barefoot, in secret, through the city streets after her husband Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun, representing the “phlegmatic”) falls asleep. They live with Kang-woo’s mother Madame Ra (Kim Hae-sook, in the “melancholic” role), the domineering perfectionist owner of the dress shop that Tae-ju works in. Tae-ju sees Sang-hyun, much as Therese Raquin sees Camille in Zola’s novel—a way out of her miserable existence with a bossy mother-in-law and a husband she can’t stand.

Soon after they become lovers and his secret is revealed, Tae-ju decides (or demands) that she also be made a vampire. Chan-wook’s absurdist, funny image of Tae-ju, working in the traditional dress shop, calling Sang-hyun to ask how one becomes a vampire, as he gives a sponge bath to a fat naked man while simultaneously stealing a thermos of blood from him, is particularly memorable. There is a clinical, almost David Cronenberg-like starkness to the horrifying violence in Thirst, a slickness, panache. Fish hooks ripping through ears, stabbing, self-flagellation, and blood being drank directly from bags like juice boxes are among the standouts, and are often played doubly – for laughs and for thrills. Chan-wook is a master with the camera, as witnessed by his scathing use of trick shots, special effects, deep focus and tracking shots not only in Thirst, but also in previous films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (aka “The Vengeance Trilogy”).

During her journey to becoming a vampire with Sang-hyun, Tae-ju evokes many classic female archetypes: she begins as the toiling shop girl (not unlike Cinderella), the sweet, mousy put-upon servant of a dowager empress, and, at points, is part screwball physical comedienne, part strong, erotic vision. “She revels in the fact that she doesn’t have to control all her desires and all of her instincts,” said Chan-wook. But her final incarnation is that of a steely femme fatale in the mold of Barbara Stanwyck’s duplicitous, morally-bankrupt Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, and at points she is the hysterical doppelganger of Isabelle Adjani in the similarly-heated Possession—she even wears a long-sleeved, clinging blue dress that is very reminiscent of that character. As is customary for the femme fatale, and for Tae-ju, there must be a reckoning for all of the hurt and destruction she has caused.

Chan-wook’s is a complicated vision that could get lost in the current proliferation of mediocre vampire mythology that has all but invaded American pop culture, but if the success of the Swedish Let the Right One In is to be believed, the tide is turning a bit in terms of tastes. The tone of that film felt very new, unpredictable even, and Thirst continues this spooky tradition by operating just outside the lines of convention. Being thrown off center, not knowing what to expect is essential for a movie that aims to chill your blood, and Thirst does this by providing an intelligent atmosphere of dread, fear, longing, sensuality and even slapstick physical comedy—all essential pieces of the vampire and monster stories that American culture seems to so desperately crave.

+ + +

Thirst opened July 31 in limited release. See it on a huge screen, in all of its Grand Guignol glory, in a dark theater, where it is the scariest and also the most fun.

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