Thirst (Bakjwi) – Movie Review

One part myth, one part vampire and one part over the top hilarity is a promising combination, but this story doesn’t add enough to the overused vampire genre to succeed

Vampire Lovers: Now for something completely different.  Unpredictable director / writer and Cannes darling Chan-wook Park (two time winner for this film and “Old Boy” (2003)) has teamed up with co-writer Seo-Gyeong Jeong to put a twist on the vampire genre that has to be seen to be believed.  This movie is one part myth, one part vampire and one part over the top hilarity.  But for viewers who think the vampire genre is dying from over-exposure to viewers, give this one a miss.  It is, after all, yet another vampire film.

Emerging star Kang-ho Song (“The Host”) plays Priest Sang-hyeon in Chan-wook’s latest addition to the human book of moral dilemmas.  The Priest decides that his level of dedication to God is not sufficient and so he must make the ultimate sacrifice to mankind.  He volunteers as a human test subject for a cure for a disease.  The disease itself is bad enough what with all the pustules and skin sloughing off and all; but what Sang-hyeon gets is even worse.  He gets a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire.

The vampire story is told on the template of the Émile Zola novel “Thérèse Raquin.”  In the novel a man steals the wife of his addled child hood friend while the friend’s paralyzed mother looks on in judgmental stasis.  Enter Hae-sook Kim playing Lady Ra the mother of Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and mother-in-law of seductive Tae-joo.  The dysfunctional family combined with the campy vampire genre, the mother-in-law stereotype and the priesthood suggests a nearly endless combination of jokes, puns, asides and pratfalls and Chan-wook doesn’t miss a single one. 

Unfortunately, from its intriguing start the film slowly degrades into standard vampire fare.  Once the priest understands he is a vampire the fun is mostly over.  He has to make the decision of whether to infect his lover, the stunning Ok-vin Kim, or not.  The two are also drawn into a plot to kill Tae-joo’s drooling idiot husband who, of course, refuses to stay dead.  Take note; murderous love-triangles get tricky when you are a vampire.

Hae-sook Kim’s performance as Lady Ra nearly steals the show.  She is at first the controlling alpha-mother who dotes on her son and dominates her dutiful daughter in law.  She swills drink like a sailor and has no equal in the household.  After her paralysis she is reduced to simply watching and tapping out coded messages with her finger.  The messages are too no avail as the family spins further out of control under the vampire spell.

Of course, there is blood everywhere.  This is not just a few quiet surreptitious kisses that turn into love-bites.  This is blood siphoned, drained, slurped, guzzled, swigged, belted, spilled, thrown, pumped and dumped.  This is blood used as an entire set.  In fact, the set itself is eventually painted white and then completely covered in thrown blood and flotsam.  When, consistent with the Zola template, the two vampire lovers conspire to kill each other in spite of the fact that they can’t be killed, the result is the ultimate vampire pratfall: mutual dysfunctional nihilistic blood sucking.  What more could you ask for?

The sound track for the film is great.  A combination of old-school Korean songs loved by Lady Ra and the priest’s sparse and lean recorder tunes based on Bach’s “Cantata BWV 82.”  The seedy quality of the mother’s ditsy pop leanings set her, and the viewer, up for the maelstrom of blood letting that begins with blood spurting out of the recorder as the priest plays his last normal tune.

Although this flick will not set the standard for love stories, vampire stories or comedies, it could become the leading example of the combination of the three.  The problem might turn out to be that the audiences for the three genres are different and it will be hard to find a vampire-ready group of people who will appreciate the nuances of the original Zola conceit.  For those willing to give it a try this is a blood letting experience not to be missed.

Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Seo-Gyeong Jeong and Chan-wook Park (after Émile Zola novel “Thérèse Raquin”)

Release:  July 31, 2009
MPAA:  Rated R for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language
Runtime: 133 minutes
Country:  South Korea
Language:  Korean with English subtitles
Color: Color