Review: Bakjwi / Thirst [2009]

a review by the the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

Editor’s Note: It’s a new year, and it’s a new era for us corvids to conquer (along with our fellow feathered friends). While we haven’t been as active as we usually are thanks to circumstances which turned out a little harder to handle than we thought, the Azure-winged Magpie and I (along with the rest of the team) would like to wish you all a very belated New Year.

Hope you all had a good crossover, and now that we’re all back, let’s talk movies!

Thirst is a movie I’ve mentioned before here on The Corvid Review. As is well-documented over the past few months, I have a certain “special” fondness for the cinema of Mr Park Chan-wook. On the night we sat down with this movie, I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I was expecting terror, squeamish scenes, something unforgiving. This is the man behind movies like the Vengeance Trilogy, Stoker, and 2016’s The Handmaiden – all movies which achieve levels of brutality rarely seen in fine art. What I got was something… different. But more on that in a bit.

This 2009 movie’s original title is 박쥐 or Bakjwi (which transliterates to: “Bat”), and yes: it’s a vampire movie. It’s supposedly loosely based on the novel Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (a writer whose work has been adapted quite often over the years – many of which I like). However, I’m just going to straight-up tell it as it is: Thirst IS an adaptation of Thérèse Raquin. It just chucks vampires in.

Anyway, that said: let’s jump into the plot!


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PLOT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS [SOME] SPOILERS

In Thirst, we’re first introduced to Sang-hyun: a Catholic priest who usually does rounds at a local hospital. Feeling that he’s not doing enough to help others, he volunteers to take part in an experimental medicinal programme which is trying to develop a cure for a deadly virus known as EV (the Emmanuel Virus) – an Ebola-like disease which has infected mostly Caucasian or Asian males since the solemn doctor heading up the programme, Father Emmanuel, isolated the virus and has started saving African lives.

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During the experiment, he is infected with the disease, and we see him rapidly going through the stages of the infection. His skin blisters and opens up, and outside of the visits to and from the doctors running the programme, he spends most of his time in the room he has been given, writing and playing his flute.

The EV (we never really return to the virus storyline outside of Sang-hyun’s connection to it) ends up killing him, and he dies just as the doctors give him a blood transfusion in a futile attempt to save his life. Moments after his death is called, however, Sang-hyun returns to life, much to the surprise of everyone present.

Six months following his resurrection, Sang-hyun returns to Korea, to a response from his followers bordering on the fanatic. Despite his newfound “fandom”, Sang-hyun manages to return to his old life. Known now as the “bandaged priest” (to hide the scars which appear on his skin during the daytime), he resumes his old duties at the hospital and elsewhere.

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He reconnects with an old childhood friend, Kang-woo, whose mother has joined Sang-hyun’s congregation (is that the correct usage?) after first hearing of his miraculous recovery. He also meets Tae-ju, Kang-woo’s wife – another acquaintance from his childhood. After praying with the family, Sang-hyun is invited to their weekly Mahjong game.

At the meeting, Sang-hyun meets the other three members of the Mahjong gang. I won’t go into detail about these three characters as much, but they’re not necessarily set dressing. The ex-Police Chief in particular is an interesting fellow from his first appearance up until the climactic scenes of the movie.

Soon after, the symptoms of the EV return, and Sang-hyun finds himself set upon by hallucinations and strange impulses. It is soon apparent that he has been transitioning into a vampire – averse to sunlight and quite nourished by blood (as a matter of fact: it happens to be the only way to stave off the symptoms of EV).

He feels his way around his newfound person over time, shifting between aping actions from fictional vampires he’s seen (sometimes with hilarious consequences: as seen in his very first action after his realisation as to what he’s become), and trying to reconcile his new state of being with his faith. But soon, his introduction to being a vampire becomes overshadowed by the more central plot of the movie: Tae-ju.

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A common character-type found in most Park Chan-wook movies is the miserable woman. He’s good at depicting these characters, and Tae-ju is no exception. Dominated by her mother-in-law, married to the lousy Kang-woo, and even lusted after by the ex-Police Chief, her life is from the very beginning etched into her face. Her only escapes from this dreary life seem to be her secret night-time sprints away from her house.

However, within the first few meetings, Sang-hyun’s odd attraction to her begins to be returned, and the two are soon in the midst of a steamy affair. Sang-hyun asks her to come away with him after revealing to her his true nature (which goes through all the usual motions), but Tae-ju instead suggests offing Kang-woo. She tells Sang-hyun how Kang-woo has been physically abusing her. Soon, the three find themselves on a fishing trip in the middle in the night by a dam, where Sang-hyun is to murder Kang-woo to save Tae-ju from the abuse.

And that’s as much spoiler as I can give out in good conscience. The movie follows the typical three-part structure I like breaking Park Chan-wook’s movies into (well, Agassi straight-up told you it had three parts, to be fair). The first part is pretty straightforward fare, as you can plainly see. Part two is a twisty affair that throws what’s come before into shades of confusion, ending in a messy family feud. Part three is short by comparison, and ties the whole story up in a single dramatic moment (Zola would certainly be proud).

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On the whole, Thirst is excellently written, and delivers its story without much mess. The humour, where there is humour, is pretty good, and the romantic tension between our two leads is pretty damn intense. When I said earlier that I got something different from what I expected before heading into the movie, what I meant is that I was expecting terror above all. Thirst touches upon it, but it is at the end of the day about the relationship between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju, and by extension, the five other characters who surround said relationship.

As a romantic movie, it nails (heh!) all the right spots, and Tae-ju might be one of the best constructed characters I’ve seen in a Park Chan-wook movie. Now, I’ve not read Thérèse Raquin, but from what I gather, Tae-ju is somewhat different from Thérèse. If so, the movie gives the character a massive upgrade compared to her novel counterpart.

Is it the best vampire story ever? I don’t think so, but it’s up there in the top 5, if not 3, I’d say. And since I’ve been speaking about the art of the plot, this might be a good time to bring up the…


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EXECUTION & THEMES

As always, Park Chan-wook and his team knock it out of the parkcough! with this one. One thing constantly in my mind after finishing the movie (and especially so because the last two movies I’ve seen by him were Stoker and The Handmaiden) is that it seems just a little touch dated, somehow. The direction is slick, the design is slick as well, and the acting is… well, to rephrase what I had in my head: it’s very good.

Religious themes run nearly throughout the movie, thinning as Sang-hyun’s faith evaporates, and his bond to Tae-ju grows stronger, and is at one point cut completely (and very literally) out. Right at the beginning of the movie, the juxtaposition of scenes involving religion with contradicting themes was a great treat because they’re done so well. It might be as simple a thing as simply putting two scenes with opposing themes next to one another, or a twist in the dialogue, but the ease with which it’s done is truly a thing of wonder.

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The nature of women is analysed as well, but in a far different (and one could even say: detached) way from the likes of Agassi/The Handmaiden. Tae-ju might be the only woman who’s psyche we delve into, but her mother-in-law Lady Ra, and even their friend Evelyn are looked at as well. The movie looks at these women (and others) through Sang-hyun’s eyes, and with him, we learn the layers to them over time.

Sang-hyun is played by Song Kang-ho, who Park Chan-wook fans might recognise from his earlier work (and who also appears in The Host, my all-time favourite monster movie). He’s a typical goody-two-shoes type who finds himself turned into a vampire. His inexperience with women, for after all he is the prototypical middle-aged virgin – and people in general, as evidenced in the earlier confession scene – form a massive space for Tae-ju to move around in. And he finds himself slowly drawn into two worlds he never once thought he’d experience.

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Tae-ju is my favourite character in the movie. And to be fair, my naming her my favourite doesn’t mean I have to like her, unlike Sang-hyun. I’ll leave it up to you to find out more for yourself because a lot of the movie’s artistry comes from the slow peeling away of her layers. Also, is it just me, or does she actually grow more attractive as the movie goes by? I’m not entirely sure if that was deliberate or not. If intended, and she’s just not the type who grows on you over time, it ties into her character’s arc just fine. Kim Ok-Bin fills the shoeswink-wink-nudge-nudge! of her character very well.

The rest of the cast do their jobs well enough. There are a few appearances from actors from Park Chan-wook’s other movies, and I always find that a nice touch.

Nailed it again. I don’t think Park Chan-wook and his team can do much wrong.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Thirst is by all standards a fine movie. I’m happy to have gone through the New Years’ period with such a good list of movies to choose from (many of which will appear on The Corvid Review as we get back into gear). As a horror movie, it’s good; as a movie about relationships, it’s amazing; as a character piece, it’s marvellous; as a vampire movie, it’s easily one of the best.

While executed with a masterful display of ability, it’s not entirely flawless. While the “action” scenes (and yes, there are a few) are great and all, they fell a little under par for me. The visual effects surrounding these scenes was just a little too… uncharacteristic. They didn’t quite fit into the rest of the movie as well, I thought. However, that’s not to say they’re bad. They just don’t blend so well into what’s around it.

The ending scenes, while I think they’re very good, seemed to fall flat for the Magpie a little. I wasn’t necessarily blown away by the scenes in question, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with them, either. All-in-all, the movie stands out as a great example of how to do the vampire angle right, but I don’t believe it’s Park Chan-wook’s finest work.

That said, with a man who seems to do no wrong at the helm, that is no problem. I wholeheartedly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see a genuinely good vampire/romance movie. Twilight gets a lot of very valid hate. So, if you’re thinking that this movie is anything like that pile of garbage, let me tell you this: Thirst would rip it into small shreds, eat some of it, and spit its blood out.

One little caveat I must mention, however. While the Magpie and I are desensitised to about 95% of made-up cinema violence, those of you for whom your cup of tea isn’t coloured bloody red blood, or something similar, you might find this movie a little …excessive in that department. That’s about it.

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Final rating: 7.5/10

Again: apologies for staying away so long. I’m aware that I might be a bit out of form, over the course of writing this review. But we’ll be back up to speed soon, fellow birds and other animals. We promise.

Another belated Happy New Year, and we’ll see you soon!

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SEE ALSO: 

Oldboy analysis [1/2], by the Crow

Agassi/The Handmaiden, by the Crow

Thirst, by the Crow (on /r/horrorreviewed)

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