50/50: Thirst (2009)
Greetings, and welcome to the newest segment on my site called 50/50. This is a special undertaking for the year 2020, where I pick apart fifty films that I consider engaging, intriguing, and fun to discuss. All in the span of fifty weeks.
This is not a countdown where one film on the list is pitted against the other in hopes of seeing which film is the best. No, these are just insights into movies that act as food for thought. So cutting back on the chit-chat, I hope that you will enjoy this cinematic buffet with me!
Repression can make you do some crazy things; so can love. That is the interpretation I made when I saw the 2009 Park Chan-Wook horror film, Thirst.
Set in South Korea, it follows Sang-Hyun, a Catholic priest who undergoes an experiment to find a vaccine for the deadly Emmanuel Virus. Like most "scientific experiments" in horror films, it goes terribly wrong, and during a blood transfusion, Sang-Hyun becomes a vampire. Yes, with no rhyme or reason, he becomes a blood-sucking, nocturnal, super-strengthed, child of darkness. Sang-Hyun's life takes a lust-filled turn when he meets up with a childhood friend and starts an affair with his wife, Tae-Ju.
Now that all parties concerned are caught up to speed, I am not surprised that this movie won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Park Chan-wook is a visionary, taking some of the tired old tropes of vampire and breathing new life into it. Right off the proverbial bat, he plunges filmgoers into the world of vampirism with no explanation.
Sang-Hyun doesn't know how it happens or from whom the blood came from he knows that: sunlight burns, blood tastes good, has heightened senses, superhuman strength, and increased agility. Throwing the viewer into the world of darkness so haphazardly allows wiggle room for fans of vampire-lore to come up with theories of their own. This is the kind of speculation which tickles my cranium and makes me want to dig a little deeper.
Speaking of trying new things with bogeymen, Park Chan-wook also treats vampiric existence as more of a contractable disease. South Korean vampires turn others by putting their infected fluids directly into their bloodstream. Could this be an allegory for STD's? is vampirism less of a call to damnation and more of a life-long burden to health like HIV? (which cannot be cured but merely managed)
According to Sang-Hyun, being a vampire is a curse, a punishment from God for his faithlessness. He is also punished as well for his lust and subsequent act of adultery with Tae-Ju. In his mind, vampirism is a demonic compulsion. His hankering for blood and Tae-Ju are sins that he cannot help but succumb to, and he inevitably hates himself for it.
Also, like most vampire romance stories, the blood-sucking beau must turn the damsel into his eternal bride. This is where dualistic themes of the film genuinely shine. Tae-Ju is caught in an annoying and emotionally abusive marriage with a boorish fool, both of them living with his overbearing mother who dotes on him as if he were still a toddler. Her affair and eventual turn from the weak woman caught in a loveless marriage; to empowered, femme-fatal of the night was the most intriguing aspect of the film. At first, she is frightened by Sang-Hyun's "disease" but becomes all the more fascinated by it. She wishes to turn into a vampire, and in a fatal twist of fate, Sang-Hyun is given no choice.
The dualism mentioned above lies in how the leads are mirror images of each other. Sang-Hyun hates his vampirism and does everything he can to assimilate to human society, Tae-Ju loves hers and slowly begins to view humans as merely food. It is this push-and-pull, this tit-for-tat where the philosophical gist of the film truly lies. Another thing that is worthy of appreciation about this couple, amidst all of the fantastical, is their believability.
One thing about most paranormal romance stories is that one never sees a relatable couple. Yes, it is all fantasy, but it would be nice to see a pairing that hangs in the realm of realism. Thirst does this correctly, Sang-Hyun is a rather average looking man, with no striking aesthetic characteristics. Also, it would have been so easy just to cast a woman to play Tae-Ju that looks like she just finished recording a Korean pop-music video. Instead, she is cuter than anything else, and not a curvaceous bombshell.
I could go on about Thirst, but why not see it for yourself instead? This is indeed a gem from the East that turns the vampire-mythos on its head.
Oh, and one more thing. Did you know that this was the first mainstream Korean film to have full-frontal male nudity in it? I guess it is true what they say; you learn something new every day.