Original review written in 2009.
It's nice to know that just because American vampires are becoming garbage and the domain of teenage girls, that somewhere overseas people are getting it right. First came Let the Right One In, an especially potent blend of vampirism and adolescence from Sweden, and now Thirst (Bakjwi), the newest film from Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).
When I first heard about Thirst, the synopsis of the film was mentioned centered around Catholic Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-Ho Song) who becomes a vampire through a blood transfusion. The transfusion occurs because he willingly contracts the (fictional) EV virus in a laboratory as an act of martyrdom. At the time, I imagined that in some way shape or form that Park was using this hook to set up a serious moral quandary about being a man of faith and a vampire. Not quite.
Thirst does deal, in minor ways, with Sang-hyeon's morality after turning, but that's hardly the only concern of the film. Sang-hyeon becomes something of a messianic figure after his "miraculous" cure, which remains a faint thread through the film, although not quite to the degree I expected. In Thirst, vampirism is still a source of super strength, leaping, and healing, but any disease you turn with will begin manifesting again without persistent feeding. I was happy that Park adheres to most of the vampire "rules" (the exception being reflections, but because he breaks it for shot composition purposes, I'll let it slide). And yet, the strange ways Sang-hyeon rationalizes finding blood is also not the primary objective.
Much of Thirst is a black comedy, with traces of film noir and ghost stories. Sang-hyeon falls in love with Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), the wife of a childhood friend, and at her suggestion, he helps murder the husband and eventually turns her. And Tae-ju is the last femme fatale you want to give super strength and bloodlust to.
Despite how dark much of this sounds, Thirst is actually very funny. IMDB lists the film as a Horror / Drama, but to ignore the comedy robs Thirst of its greatest weapon. Park treats the vampires with a disturbingly comic edge, in addition to a number of twisted developments in the second half of the film. At times I was reminded faintly of Double Indemnity crossed with the last scene in Very Bad Things, which is a marriage that could only work in Thirst. The tone of the film never gets bogged down in moral wrestling, even when Sang-hyeon's ethics clash with Tae-ju's. Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim), the mother of deceased Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), does a lot of work with very little, since she spends the second half of the film paralyzed.
Oh, and there are Tae-ju's hallucinations, or nightmares. That's when the movie gets verrrrry weird for a spell. That, and what I cannot prove but would suggest is a nod to Let the Right One In - while Sang-hyeon is receiving absolution, he begins pouring blood from his skull, eye sockets, and ears, not unlike what happens when Eli enters uninvited.
The ending (which I will not spoil here), is horrifying, hilarious, and sadly sweet. For a vampire movie that blends black comedy with film noir, there's really only one way Thirst could end, and despite the reminiscence to Blade II and 30 Days of Night, I found the closing of the film to be utterly appropriate.
For fans of Park's other films, expect to see something a little different. The drowning scene, at times, reminded me tonally of early Peter Jackson, and that is perhaps the best thing to keep in mind when watching Thirst. If you aren't laughing during sections of this film, Thirst may not be for you. For anyone who enjoyed Let the Right One In, or other non-conventional vampire films, I highly recommend Thirst. Now you'll have two recent movies to counter the masses with.