Thirst (Bakjwi) (2009)

It’s like foreign film week around here, eh? I might even add one more before I’m done. INSANITY. Today’s entry is Thirst, the second 2012 Flavor from Korea. It comes from writer-director Park Chan-wook, otherwise known as the only South Korean other than PSY anyone has ever heard of. You have my word as a gentleman I will not make any “Gangnam Style” jokes. Mainly because I wouldn’t have any idea how to go about doing that, aside from saying Gangnam Style over and over.

Can you believe we’ve gone through 27 days of October without a single vampire movie? Last year was like vampapalooza and this year, nada. There were a few interesting titles I hadn’t seen but none caught my eye. I’m generally a fan of Park’s work (way better than anything those dirty Lees and Kims put out) but sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. JSA, for example, was a good movie; it just didn’t do anything for me. But the man does not produce cheap material so I figured Thirst was a good way to transfuse some vampire into this year’s countdown. See what I did there with transfuse? Gangnam Style!

Bad men wear square glasses.

The story: Father Sang-hyun is a sweet, considerate sort of guy. You can tell by his circular glasses, cherub cheeks and little boy haircut. He spends his days in a hospital giving comfort to the dying but that’s not nearly depressing enough for the selfless friar. He volunteers to be injected with a disease known as the Emmanuel Virus, which has been killing missionaries all over the world. The idea is to give him the virus and test the cure in his body, though they don’t explain how this setup is legal without like a billion successful animal trials. Sure enough the vaccine does all of nothing so Sang-hyun develops hideous blisters all over his body, vomits up gallons of blood, and dies shortly thereafter. Then he starts talking. Hallelujah!

That’s what you get for fingerblasting Tara Reid.

He goes back to preaching the good word and caring for the sick as people come from all around to seek his blessing, convinced his illness was cured by God. Among them are a childhood acquaintance and his domineering mother, who wrongly believes her son has the cancer. When junior turns out to be cancer-free, Sang-hyun is welcomed into the odd family as a savior. But he soon finds that his strange resurrection has awakened in him a passion for carnal knowledge, and a thirst for human blood. I’m pretty sure both of those are frowned upon in the priesting community.

Cancer? You didn’t have any…I mean…it’s a miracle!

Biggest letdown: Thirst is loosely based on Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, which is so well known the entire plot of the movie is basically spoiled before the opening titles. Right?

Obviously I’ve never read Thérèse Raquin because I do not speak French and I am not terribly into masochism. But I can and did read a summary online, which as far as I’m concerned is just as good. The book is all about betrayal and lust and murder, but it has precisely zero vampires. What’s unfortunate about Thirst is that the vampire stuff is tense, dignified and smart, but the part that follows the Zola story is tedious. I’m sure it’s psychologically very interesting but two things prevent me from giving the tiniest shit about it:

  1. The leading lady, Tae-ju, is played by an actress who is striking to look at but lacks nuance. She plays the emotions of her character without every reaching her motivations, or at least that’s what her facial expressions and posture tell me. It’s hard to be sure though, because…
  2. Thirst‘s U.S. DVD version has the worst subtitles of any movie I’ve ever seen from any country ever. And I’ve seen independent films from Thailand about warriors who do battle over vaginal blood. Thirst is a big-time movie from a big-time director, so it’s shocking that it was apparently translated by refugees living in shipping containers with nothing but flashlights and Korean-to-English dictionaries. They do things like use the word “cuz” as an abbreviation for “because”, which is weird but hardly offensive. The ways in which it’s used, however, are…interesting: “I’m leaving cuz shit smells, not scares.” Okay, what? They also confuse could and can (“I wish I can see the sun before I die.”) and plural and singular (“How many has to die for your taste?”). It’s jarring and you have to wonder how many key scenes suffered because the malnourished slave laborers doing the translation didn’t know enough English.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Mummy.

Park is really good at telling stories visually, but when things get talky the dramatic progression of Thirst tends to stall. A lot of that can surely be attributed to item two above, but it’s hard to deny this movie is excessively long. A runtime of over two hours and fifteen minutes is inexcusable in a movie where so little significant action happens.

One last thing irked me, though it’s fairly trivial. Almost immediately after he comes back from the dead, the young priest explains that his predatory condition isn’t his fault because he didn’t choose the (ostensibly vampiric) donor whose blood he received during the procedure to save his life. So  why waste time on the virus at all? He could have just as easily been bitten and the story would remain the same.

The Emmanuel Virus is referred to by its initials, E.V., which is pronounced “Eve.” The virus also happens to only affect men. Get it? A tidier choice for how he came to crave blood and sexy sex would have been the virus and its vaccine combining to generate symptoms approximating vampirism. This way, instead of relying on some anonymous undead blood donor, EV itself becomes the tempting force, just like the Garden of Eden version. Then again, maybe that’s what actually happened but the dramatically unqualified translators just didn’t know how to convey it.

Leering at a priest will cost you ten Hail Mary’s, missy.

Why you should watch: If my biggest complaints are entirely the fault of shoddy subtitles, it’s pretty clear this is a good movie. Thirst is a classy vampire story. Not quite as good as Twilight (PUKE) but still plenty watchable. It’s played seriously but it has a wonderful, dark sense of humor. It’s beautifully shot and features a small number of fantastic physical set pieces that would be right at home in any Hollywood blockbuster. The effects used to demonstrate Sang-hyun’s abilities are occasionally less than perfect (Peter Pan flying, wtf) but for the most part they’re subtle and convincing, like when he effortlessly lifts a chair carrying a sleeping person. The motion is so seamless and smooth, you don’t see computer or mechanically aided effects. It feels like you’re watching a great stage magician, wondering just how he did that.

Ew, arm hair in my teeth.

I have to mention that Kang Ho-song is excellent as the tortured Father Sang-hyun. I’m not sure what it is but leading men in the Korean movies I’ve seen are almost always solid. Oddly the leading men in the Japanese movies I’ve seen tend to be overly demonstrative little waifs who scream constantly for no damn reason. It’s possible I’m over generalizing. And racist.


Memorable Moment: I loved the bit where Sang-hyun first realizes what’s happened to him via a short but assaultive sensory overload. First his newly sensitized ears pick up the sounds of a couple having sex somewhere beyond the walls of his apartment. Then other noises – cats, laughter, cars – add to the cacophony. Smelly cigars and cooking food pile on, multiplying his torment. Finally he looks in horror as his enhanced vision magnifies his forearm, enabling him to see the tiny, translucent mites crawling among his gaping pores. Yich.

Choice quote: This is why we should all watch our blood pressures, watch our drinking, and stay away from salty foods.”

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6 Responses to “Thirst (Bakjwi) (2009)”

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