When films about vampires or werewolves are made, generally it’s more interesting when the transformation is a metaphor for a new self or rediscovery, rather than a literal black and white term of being a monster. The 2000 Canadian film Ginger Snaps poked fun at girlhood puberty and the menstruation cycle by having a teenage girl who has never menstruated slowly turn into a werewolf, with the telltale signs of growing hair and bleeding, aptly calling it “the curse.” The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In uses a vampire child as a manifestation of a bullied boy’s rage, as if she is his imaginary friend and he can take power and control back through her killings and supernatural abilities.
In the 2009 Korean film Thirst, directed by horror master Park Chan-wook, a mild-mannered priest makes himself a guinea pig for a medical experiment to find a vaccine for a virus, only to become a vampire through a mistake in the experiment and being revived by a blood transfusion. His new identity as a vampire gives him an out for the sins he has denied himself, which includes coveting his friend’s quiet and repressed wife, who is desperately looking for an out from her trapped marriage and family, both which are practically one and the same (as she is weirdly married to her adopted brother, who has cancer).
The relationship between the former priest Sang-hyun (Song kang-ho) and the wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) is the most fascinating of the film, and both undergo the biggest transformations. Sang-hyun tries desperately to stay true to his priestly disposition, not wanting to kill anybody, and instead drinks the blood of terminally ill patients who wish to commit suicide, both prolonging his life and energy and reducing their pain and agony. He cannot fully let himself go with his new desires, as he is Catholic to the core. When he can see Tae-ju’s blood pumping through the veins through her thin pale skin, it’s all he can do to hold himself back from pouncing on her. He thinks to himself, “Now I thirst after all sinful pleasures.”
He always tries to stay dignified, but Tae-ju, as his Lady MacBeth, continually tempts him to the dark side as she finds his powers irresistible. She enters the film resembling a bored post-teenage wife, mopey and quiet and misunderstood by her husband and mother in-law. But it is obvious that she has buried passions boiling inside of her, and in her rapturous lovemaking scenes with Sang-hyun, she reveals herself to be as dark and as twisted as him. “I’m too damn healthy,” she says, pissing about taking care of her sick husband and envying Sang-hyun’s illness which strangely gives him free will. It’s a literally biting passion, and it quickly transforms Tae-ju, noting, “It’s strange, but good,” and not knowing why she receives pleasure from pain.
Kim does an outstanding job of turning Tae-ju from a chilidish girl into a conniving femme fatale within a short character arc. She becomes completely unrecognizable from her former self as she seduces and manipulates Sang-hyun, both playing the innocent and his eager partner. She craves blood, power, control, and both she and Sang-hyun feel more confident and stronger with each other, less like their former slave selves.
Shot in muted colors with a blue shadiness, Thirst has some resemblance to Let the Right One In in terms of moodiness and dark atmosphere, plus the theme of loneliness and outsiders finding power and strength in an unexpected relationship and source. Both films present their paired stars as them against the world, held back by their surroundings and looking for an escape. But Thirst feels like it has more tragedy to it, as Sang-hyun and Tae-ju cannot possibly live forever feasting on blood and not get away with it. It would tear them apart. Sang-hyun, despite becoming a vampire, is too full of Catholic guilt and piety, while Tae-ju uses her transformation to justify all the hidden desires she’s ever had. It is at once a beautiful but tragic romance.
– By Melissa