According to Wikipedia, Thirst ( or, Bat 박쥐) (2009) is “loosely based” on the novel Thérèse Raquin, a novel by nineteenth-century French author Émile Zola. Actually, screenwriter Seo-Gyeong Jeong and writer/director/ producer Chan-wook Park adapted the basic structure, plot-line, and characters of Zola’s novel by transposing them to modern-day South Korea. The alterations that they made transformed the novel’s story from a nineteenth-century French realistic tale to a contemporary, supernatural horror thriller.
This is one excellent way to develop a screenplay: find a story in classic literature that is in the public domain and adapt it to a different time period and genre. Before Jeong and Park’s screenplay, Thérèse Raquin had been adapted for the screen several times: in 1953 by Marcel Carné, in 1928 by Jacques Feyder (a silent picture that is now a “lost film“), and in two other silent films. All of these films were Western productions. Moreover, none of them involved vampires or anything to do with the supernatural. Jeong and Park made Zola’s character Laurent a Catholic priest, Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) , instead of a coworker of the husband of the woman he seduces.
The seduction that occurs in Thirst is not as straightforward as that in Zola’s novel. Sang-hyeon is an idealistic priest who is frustrated by his inability to save any of the patients with whom he works in his hospital ministry. In an attempt to do something more meaningful with his life, he volunteers to transfer to a research medical clinic to be a test subject for a vaccine. This decision is an act of either suicide or martyrdom, as the experiment involves being exposed to the Emmanuel Virus (or EV — pronounced “Eve” — for short), which is deadly. It causes blistering that spreads over the surface of the body, then to the internal organs, where it causes massive bleeding that leads to hemoptysis (coughing up blood) and death.
Emmanuel means “God is with us” and is one of the names of Christ Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible. Given what happens to Sang-hyeon, it is also a highly ironic name for the virus. Sang-hyeon is the only test subject who survives the experiment, but he first actually dies from the virus. He revives miraculously seconds after being pronounced dead. When he leaves the experimental clinic and returns to his previous hospital assignment, he is seen by his parishioners as a saint who has miraculous healing powers. Catholics who are ill or diseased flock to him for healing prayers.
One hospitalized patient, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), has a doting and overprotective mother, Lady Ra (Hae-suk Kim), who appeals hysterically for Sang-hyeon to save him from his esophageal cancer. Sang-hyeon prays over Kang-woo in the presence of Lady Ra and Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim). Lady Ra is a faithful Catholic, but Kang-woo and Tae-ju are non-believers. Nevertheless, the prayers are effective, ultimately healing Kang-woo.
Moreover, Kang-woo realizes that Sang-hyeon is a childhood friend from Pusan. As an orphan, Sang-hyeon had come to his house to play and had been given meals by Lady Ra. Tae-ju, whom Sang-hyeon had thought was Kang-woo’s sister, is really an abandoned child who Lady Ra raised and then married off to Kang-woo, who had become an invalid due to his many medical maladies. Since Kang-woo does not work, Lady Ra runs a women’s clothing boutique that sells traditional Korean attire. When Tae-ju is not working at the boutique with Lady Ra, she waits on Kang-woo. Needless to say, she has a very unhappy life.
Sang-hyeon’s EV symptoms begin to return. He becomes hungry for blood and realizes that drinking blood makes the symptoms resolve. It turns out that some of the blood in a transfusion he was given at the experimental clinic was from a vampire. Sang-hyeon realizes that he himself has become a vampire when he becomes allergic to sunlight and develops superhuman strength. He manages to survive without killing — for awhile — by stealing blood from the hospital where he works and by draining blood from the IV line of a comatose patient. Completely beset by all manner of sinful desires now that he is a vampire, he attempts to resist temptation by mortifying his flesh (in this case, beating himself with a stick). This method turns out to be very ineffective.
Lady Ra invites Sang-hyeon to the weekly mahjongg party that she holds at her home. She is so grateful to him for saving her son that she asks him to live with her and her family, offering him a room in her house. Since Sang-hyeon has realized that he is overpoweringly attracted to Tae-ju, he accepts. Soon he and Tae-ju, who is likewise attracted to him, start to have a sexual relationship. However, Tae-ju is initially repelled when Sang-hyeon reveals to her that he is a vampire, but comes to accept it after she realizes the extent of his supernatural powers.
When Sang-hyeon notices bruises on Tae-ju’s thighs, he asks her if Kang-woo abuses her. She says that he does. Since Sang-hyeon wants Tae-ju for himself, he and Tae-ju plot to kill Kang-woo. They are able to do so while on a nighttime fishing outing, making it appear as if Kang-woo got drunk and then drowned after falling in the water. Overcome by grief at the news, Lady Ra has an apparent stroke and becomes an invalid who must be cared for by Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju.
Despite having each other and the house all to themselves, Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju begin quarreling after Kang-woo begins appearing to them from the dead, in a waterlogged state but with his distasteful personality intact. When Tae-ju lets it slip during an argument that she lied about Kang-woo’s abusing her, Sang-hyeon kills her in a rage by snapping her neck. Overcome with remorse and unwilling to live an eternal life alone, he revives her with his own blood, thereby changing her into a vampire.
While Sang-hyeon battles with moral and ethical scruples about being a vampire, Tae-ju does not. She begins hunting humans for their blood and continues to do so despite Sang-hyeon’s efforts to stop her. When guests arrive for the weekly mahjongg party (about which the two vampires had forgotten), a bloodbath ensues. How will Sang-hyeon deal with this? As he tells Tae-ju, the police will certainly come to search the house after it is noticed that the mahjongg party guests are missing. Sang-hyeon comes up with a plan to leave town with Tae-ju and Lady Ra (who has witnessed all the bloody goings-on at her house). However, his ultimate solution to the dilemma takes Tae-ju and Lady Ra by surprise.
The uniqueness of this film comes from the way in which Park and Jeong adapted Zola’s novel. Although it uses standard vampire clichés, it applies them to a story that has been skillfully transposed to the sociocultural world of modern-day South Korea. The conflict with which the central character, Sang-hyeon, must deal is greatly accentuated by his identity as a Catholic priest. The EV vaccine experiment is also an ingenious plot device, as it provides a believable way for a priest to become a vampire. It is also extremely ironic, as Sang-hyeon’s act of self-sacrifice (unlike Jesus’) becomes a curse upon himself and everyone he knows, especially Tae-ju.
Although this movie sounds like it is for the highbrow horror audience, it still includes enough of the two elements that a film must have (in some fashion) in order to be successful at the box office: sex and violence. As noted above, Tae-ju has no qualms about living the vampire life to the fullest extent. There is also a fairly good fight scene between her and Sang-hyeon. The film’s ending is also gruesome, yet provides a fitting ending — one in which “the other shoe drops” — literally.
Thirst won several honors, including a jury prize at Cannes in 2009. It is available on DVD and via streaming video (e.g., Amazon). Its runtime is 133 minutes (145 minutes in the director’s cut version, 148 minutes on Blu-ray). It is rated R by the MPAA. The dialogue is in Korean, but English subtitles are available.