FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Thirst

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Father Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a well respected priest who volunteers at a local hospital, providing comfort to those in need. He finds himself wavering and decides to volunteer for an experiment to find a vaccine for the Emmanual virus, a deadly infection sweeping through the population. The experiment goes wrong and he contracts the EV, but is the only one of 500 to survive the process. Given his newfound aversion to sunlight and desire for human blood, he quickly deduces he is a vampire. He's still desperate to uphold his faith and not fall into sin, including killing people, but an affair with a childhood friend's wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), leads him down a path full of carnal and fleshly desires.

Thirst is, rather surprisingly, based on the Emile Zola novel, Thérese Raquin, taking several plot elements into the narrative structure. I say surprisingly because there aren't actually any vampires in the book and as a 19th century work set in France, it seems like a bit of a leap for a contemporary Korean horror film. And yet, what the two texts share is the same kind of thematic exploration, following individuals imprisoned by faith or society and pushing them to their psychological breaking point with the conflict their circumstances induce. The stories differ on choosing who to follow; Zola places Thérese in focus, while director Park Chan-Wook builds his narrative around Father Sang-hyun (who corresponds to Laurent in Zola's novel).

In Zola's novel, Laurent and Thérese's behaviour is often described in animalistic terms and as a novelist, Zola was fascinated in the blurred lines between the human and the bestial. The vampire is a figure that occupies those blurred lines, managing to be both all at once so it makes complete sense that Park and fellow screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong combine their narrative with that of Zola's. The film is called Bakjwi in Korean, which translates literally as Bat, already hinting that it is exploring its lead's humanity through his vampirism. 

That conflict is bound up within Sang-hyun, played beautifully by Song, who spends much of the movie wrestling his faith and desire not to sin with his need to consume human blood. He uses to both his advantage and that of the people helps, taking blood from people who desire to commit suicide to ease their passing and to assuage his own hunger. It's only when he takes Tae-ju into that world that this balance is thrown out; their murderous scheme to kill her sick and spoilt husband Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) sets off a chain of events that sees everything spiral out of Sang-hyun's control. Her animalistic side takes over and he is forced into confronting his own humanity in order to redress that balance.

Their relationship is what gives the film its heart, a story of two people broken by circumstances out of their control and finding each other to take solace in. Before the husband's murder, it plays out with a sweetness that wouldn't be out of place in a romantic comedy. There's lots of humour in there too, some as black as it comes (Kang-woo's grinning post-murder apparitions) as well as things like a wardrobe doubling as a coffin for Sang-hyun to sleep in or the inventive use of his priest's cassock billowing around him as he leaps, connoting a bat's wings. Park deftly keeps all of these aspects running throughout the film and achieving a balance that never tips it into parody, nor become too meditative.

Thirst is wonderfully idiosyncratic and a refreshing kind of adaptation, opting to use its literary basis to explore the soulfulness of vampirism rather than simply the capacity for violence. It makes for an elegant, contemporary vampire tale and a memorable experience.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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