In Horror Bucket List, I fill in gaps in my horror film knowledge based on recommendations from friends on Twitter. We then have a back and forth discussion about their history with the film.
Next up: a jaunt to South Korea to check out Park Chan-Wook’s sexy vampire film, Thirst, with Jenny Nulf.
Plot: Through a failed medical experiment, a priest (Song Kang-ho) is stricken with vampirism and is forced to abandon his ascetic ways.
QHM: When did you first see it and why did you want me to check it out?
Jenny Nulf: Thirst was my first Park Chan Wook film theatrically, and I oddly remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first summer back from college, and I had a countdown for when the film was going to hit theaters in Austin. It was everything I was obsessed with at the time: vampires, East Asian horror, and Song Kang Ho (who quickly became one of my favorite actors after seeing The Host for the first time the year before).
It was during a time when little mini-posters for every film were left out in the theater lobby, and the Thirst mini-poster moved three times with me and lived on the wall by my bed. It’s so sexy.
After watching the Vengeance trilogy, I thought I knew the kind of filmmaker Park Chan Wook was, but Thirst made me realize he was something more than just a master tension and twists. It’s patient and lustful – two things I admire when it comes to horror.
As someone who also admires these kinds of horror movies, I really thought you would find a lot to bite into (pun definitely intended).
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about East Asian cinema are the films’ near disinterest in adhering to tropes or genres. While Thirst is loosely based on Émile Zola’s French novel Thérèse Raquin, the vampire elements transform the dysfunctional relationship into a completely different narrative.
You mention the film changed your opinion of the kinds of films that Park makes. How does it complement or expand on his other films and, for audiences less familiar with East Asian cinema, is Thirst representative of their national cinema?
When I first got into South Korean cinema, the two most popular genres exported to the US were rom coms like My Sassy Girl, and ultra violent genre films like Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy.
Before Thirst I had only watched Oldboy and Lady Vengeance due to time and availability. Upon rewatching Thirst, I realize it has more in common with his later films Stoker and The Handmaiden than it does with his earlier films. Thirst is packed with desire and longing, and while it certainly has the gore I expected in a Park film, it didn’t have the propelling mystery of his early thrillers. Having now seen his full filmography, I would argue Thirst is his most ambitious film alongside The Handmaiden, although that film has more traditional thriller qualities that make it fast paced and gripping.
In broader terms of East Asian cinema, there are obviously fewer vampire films than in US or European cinema (vampire mythos come from Eastern Europe, so that’s an obvious reason why). Before Thirst I had only seen one vampire film from Asia, and that was a Hong Kong film called The Twins Effect. Since then I have seen a few more, but it’s not a popular horror subgenre to explore in East Asia.
I love how Park subtly debunks traditional vampire motifs throughout Thirst, like showing Song Kang Ho’s character Priest Sang-hyeon’s reflection in a mirror, or standing directly next to a cross.
Thirst does fit into the South Korean popular genre very nicely though. It has a good balance of dark humor and a foreboding sense of dread, which is what makes these films so popular and accessible to foreign audiences. But at its core, Thirst is a melodrama, and watching it made me realize that’s the element that makes his revenge films like Oldboy so compelling: everything is big, dramatic, and lustful. It’s life or death.
Absolutely. Despite its small cast of characters, Thirst feels big and brash and epic in its life and death scope.
Is there a specific scene or visual element that comes to mind when you think of the film?
There’s a scene where Sang-hyun takes hold of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) and jumps across the tops of buildings. The angle of the camera is perfect – showing almost none of Sang-hyun, fixated on Tae-ju’s pleasure only. Park Chan Wook is very particular when it comes to getting inside the heads of his characters, and this is a perfect example of it.
Also, Song Kang Ho’s emo bangs are a nice visual element I like to think about from time to time.
Lol. He does have a lot of “look” in the film, particularly when he changes out of his priest habit.
Kidding aside, costume and colour are significant components of the film. It’s not a casual detail that Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-sook) owns a dress shop or that Tae-ju switches to that iconic blue dress when she becomes a vampire. What do you make of the colour palette of this film?
One scene I like a great deal is when they paint the walls white – to me that is such a stark and welcome change from the home’s dark floral wallpaper and deep wood. Mrs. Ra is a very traditional woman – right down the hanbok shop she owns. Tae-ju is expected to take on the role of the traditional housewife, which is boring and dull to her; the old, stuffy environment around her reflects that and creates a sense of claustrophobia. It’s why she literally runs each night when she feels overwhelmed by her family, a family she never chose.
For me, the first thing noticeable about Tae-ju’s iconic blue outfit is that you can see her bra through her button-up shirt. It’s a drastic change from her comfortable and conservative look before, opening her up to sin. The shift from nude colors to blue really helps Tae-ju blossom as a character, and the change in wardrobe indicates that she is no longer oppressed by her family.
No one is really who they appear to be at the offset, are they? Initially most of the characters are presented like they’re living lives filled with sacrifice, but everyone is actually “thirsting” for something more.
How do you see the character evolution throughout the film and (much more broadly) the narrative implications regarding faith/religion, sacrifice and “doing/being good”?
In Thirst, everyone is using somebody for their own selfish needs. Sang-hyeon signs on for the experiment to escape priesthood, and possibly life itself. Tae-ju desires Sang-hyeon because he’s an escape from her family. Later, Priest Noh (In-hwan Park) seeks vampirism so he can be cured of blindness and see the sky once more, and even Mrs. Ra’s devotion to tradition is revealed to be emotionally abusive to her adopted daughter-in-law. Without partaking in the traditional Eastern European vampire motifs (mentioned above), Park still addresses the core of what vampirism is: a metaphor for the deep longing and taboo sensual desires that humans have.
It is interesting that Sang-hyeon is eventually able to accept sins like sex, suicide, and even gluttony, but the one sin he struggles with is murder. In the end I believe that’s why he chooses his and Tae-ju’s fate. Park’s vampire metaphor exploits the issues that are wrong with organized religion, but also what is wrong with humanity at large.
At the end of the day, that’s what makes Thirst a great vampire film: it uses its supernatural genre trappings to say something thoughtful and provoking about what is means to be human.
Well said. Thirst proved to be simultaneously exactly what I’d expect from a Park film, and yet it was completely different from what I anticipated. It’s incredibly satisfying and complicated and odd and sexy. It’s quite the film! I’m giving it a 4/5.
What’s your final rating (out of 5) for Thirst? And where can people get in touch with you if they want to follow up?
I really like Thirst, but the length keeps me from falling head over heels with it. So I’m going to go with 4/5 as well!
You can find me on Twitter @jennyleighx33, and my writing appears on the Austin Chronicle website from time to time :). Thank you!