At night, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin) runs. Quietly, o as not to wake her husband and mother-in-law, she slips out the door and steps onto the street, cool stones beneath her bare feet. And then she takes off, thwap-thwap-thwapping down dark alleys and up empty thoroughfares. While everyone else in the city sleeps, and Tae-ju is restless, relentless, running for hours.
Sadly, she cannot run away from her life, so dire and extreme. Her desperation built up over years of abuse and oppression. Abandoned as a child, she was raised by dress-shop owner Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook), “like a daughter and a puppy.” Beset and belittled like Cinderella, Tae-ju was also forced to serve Mrs. Ra’s son Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), an impotent, grotesque and giggly man-child now described as her husband; she learned limits, withstood hardships, and obeyed orders. Inside, she seethed, her yearning and her pain manifested in her late-night running (she was teased about having calloused feet) and in another secret activity, cutting herself.
Full of ache and desire, Tae-ju seems the ultimate embodiment of the title of Park Chan-wook’s new film, Thirst (Bakjwi). And yet… she meets a kind of match in the priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), also despairing and aggrieved. In fact, Sang-hyeon’s story is the movie’s primary focus, his slow-building interest in Tae-ju a sign of his decline (that she is a means to detail his tragedy is perversely perfect — she can’t even be the central sufferer in a tale of suffering).
Sang-hyeon is introduced as a man with a calling. At the hospital bedside of a man about to slip into an irreversible coma, he hears a tragic story of desire and demise; afterwards, he decides to undergo an experimental treatment conducted by doctors in search of a cure for the Emmanuel virus. Within hours of a rather grisly transfusion, he’s vomiting blood and bleeding from his eyes. Almost as soon as he’s pronounced dead, Sang-hyeon is resurrected, or rather, transformed: no longer merely human, he is now, apparently by an accident in the experiment, a vampire.
Hailed and worshipped as a miracle in and of himself, Sang-hyeon is besieged with requests to heal the forlorn and the diseased. Stumbling home, unsure what to make of his new potency and — no small thing — his thirst for blood — he succumbs to Mrs. Ra’s petition that he heal her son and his childhood friend, Kang-woo, currently hospitalized for yet another ailment. Several plot points later, Sang-hyeon lays eyes on Tae-Ju, seeing in her a kindred spirit, that is, someone full of longing and pain and rage. He follows her when she runs, frightening her with his vampiric abilities to leap and fly, and eventually convinces her of their shared sensibility.
Even as they start — tentative, unclever, and then surprised and rapturous — their seeming salvation can’t possibly end well. A series of clandestine assignations — in the dress shop, in the hospital, in the house where Sang-hyeon comes to play Mahjongg and where Tae-Ju feels so utterly trapped — reveals that even as they press sweaty flesh, pant and shudder, they are still, according to the terms of Tae-Ju’s metaphor, running nowhere. The sex scenes are feverish, more depressing than fulfilling, lusty and loud and disturbing, that is, exactly opposite of the Twilight kiddies’ pretty virginity. Even as she calls him unexpectedly “cute,” for a vampire, he visits with an aging senior priest, confessing his agony and sense of guilt. If Sang-hyeon and Tae-Ju repeatedly feel aroused to the point of torture, their agony only prolonged when, in an especially wretched moment, Sang-hyeon bestows on his beloved the gift of undeadness.
Here Thirst, which is of a thematic piece with Park’s notorious Vengeance trilogy, turns even more awful. As Sang-hyeon becomes increasingly sympathetic, even vaguely moral, Tae-Ju is more and more frantic, selfish, and monstrous, the id to his ego, the girl to his boy. Wily and livid after years of abuse, Tae-Ju is unleashed by her thirst and power, unwilling to control herself. This dreary relegation of the female to childish villainy allows Sang-hyeon to seem heroic. He maintains a weird set of rules (he only sucks blood from coma victims, never attacks humans who are up and about, believes he means, still, “to help the needy”), while she feels every moment of craving to her core. Cruel and brutal, she takes pleasure in inflicting pain and manipulating victims. She seeks vengeance on the world — as well as specific culprits — while he wants to live among humans, sating himself just enough to survive, to remain hidden.
With this conflict in place, the film does go on, presenting scene after scene of gross-out bloody mess, gorgeously composed but also mightily repulsive: fingernails come off, necks snap, limbs are mangled, and lots and lots of blood spills. Like Park’s other movies, this one makes brash comedy of its excess, using viewers’ own thirst for violence and gore and escalating emotional and ethical stakes. Like Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) of Oldboy, Sang-hyeon is crazily unable to keep control of his own story. In his fever dream of an un-life, the extreme suckage and the sex are intermingled, not in romantic struggles over borders (life and death, love and loathing, abject need and noble self-restraint), but in absurd displays, acrobatic and lunatic, briefly jokey but also poignant — sort of.
Consider the unlikely but also inevitable metaphor of Kang-woo’s waterbed, for years a location of Tae-Ju’s humiliation, as she was forced to masturbate him. When Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju try to use that very bed as a trysting site, they’re punished with all manner of wetness, impossible and gushy and overwhelming. Imagining themselves ascendant, the vampires are brought low again and again, suffering their own versions of very nasty vengeance. No one here emerges triumphant or even okay: vampires are victims and vice versa.