I’ve seen Oldboy. We’ve all seen Oldboy. If you’ve seen one Park Chan-wook film, it’s Oldboy. Or possibly The Handmaiden. Which was what made me realize I should really watch more Park Chan-wook. So eventually I watched Stoker and The Little Drummer Girl, which I also liked. I wanted more! You could even say I…thirsted for more. And lo, I checked out the Park Chan-wook vampire movie Thirst.
I liked Thirst, though not as much as the rest of Park’s work. Park mashes up Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola with familiar vampire tropes, and while I’m impressed with how faithful he remains to the vampire-free novel, the need to serve these two stories negatively affects the length and pacing of the film. It takes almost half an hour for the story to begin in earnest, and then another for it to really take off, and it becomes hard to decipher what the actual story is because the focus keeps shifting. The narrative is far more linear than usual, and it’s not as visually daring as I expected, though on occasion Park busts out with a freaky hallucination or an apartment completely painted white to keep it from feeling too conventional. To his credit, he nails the uncanny way vampires move, especially when lifting furniture as if it weighs nothing, and I’ve never seen anything like the way he films a vampire leaping from rooftop to rooftop by keeping the camera above him and following his up-and-down motion. Despite some issues with the script, the strong central performances from Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-vin and the changing dynamic of their characters keep the film compelling until the final scene. Which is what I want to spend the rest of this piece talking about, so SPOILERS AHEAD.
To allow some spoiler space before I delve into a play-by-play of the visual storytelling in the final scene of this movie, I would simply like to state that I love Song Kang-ho. Isn’t he great? Let’s all agree that he’s great. Before this, I saw him in three of Bong Joon-ho’s films and it’s like he’s a different damn person every time. It almost felt like Park Chan-wook was using his inherent likability against me because even when he crossed some lines as a vampire, I still wanted to believe he was a good person! He was just conflicted! At times he became quite unlikeable, and I feared he would descend into darkness. But he came through in the end.
So the final scene of Thirst is easily one of the best scenes in the film, and one reason I love it so much is how most of it is free of dialogue and music and full of black comedy until the last moments when Park Chan-wook reaches for poignancy with only a few lines of dialogue that honestly aren’t even necessary. Another reason is that it’s drenched in the haunting blue of twilight. You could release it as a short film and it would be almost entirely coherent on its own—it introduces two distinct characters, establishes the stakes, throws obstacle after obstacle at the characters, resolves the conflict, and provides a denouement.
After Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin) murders several people, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) takes her for a drive. When he reaches his destination, he turns off the car and breaks off the key. This is the end of the line; that car is not going anywhere. Just as he ripped a coin in half earlier in the film, he displays his vampire strength by splitting metal.
He tenderly caresses a sleeping Tae-ju before exiting the car. The slam of the car door wakes her up, and she checks her watch. Oh shit. She gets out, but it’s too late, as Sang-hyun has already tossed the useless keys into the ocean. At this point it’s clear what’s going on: the sun is about to rise, and there’s no escape. For either of them, presumably, but mostly her, as she’s the one fighting.
Tae-ju first gets back in the car and tries to start it. No go. Okay, then she’ll just walk to safety. Nope, Park Chan-wook follows her gaze as we see there’s no shelter as far as the eye can see. He even gives us a wide shot of open space, the two of them mere shadows in the distance as Tae-ju frantically looks for a way out. She runs to the cliffside, and there’s nothing but ocean. Park has established the geography of the situation by allowing us to feel her desperation.
Cut to Tae-ju emptying the trunk. Smart move! Hide in the trunk! It says a lot about Tae-ju that even though Sang-hyun obviously drove her here to kill her, she drags him over and pushes him into the trunk first before getting in herself. Not only can she not accept her own death, but she can’t accept his, which he’s resigned himself to. But, hilariously, he kicks the trunk lid off and it flies the hell away.
Cut to Tae-ju picking up the trunk lid and walking back to the car, where she climbs back into the trunk and attempts to place the lid back on so she is fully protected from impending sunlight, and I cannot capture in words how funny this is. Sang-hyun just stands there looking at her like “What the hell are you doing?” And then he calmly walks over and picks up the trunk lid and begins walking toward the cliffside to toss it into the ocean.
But Tae-ju will not give up. Park Chan-wook gives us a beautiful wide shot of Tae-ju vampire-leaping from the car and sailing weightlessly through the air until she friggin’ kicks Sang-hyun in the back. Now they struggle, and Park closes in on their hands because Tae-ju has become so desperate—she glances up in fear at how little time she must have left—that she breaks every single one of Sang-hyun’s fingers to get him to release the lid, but he’s still able to knock her away and then, uh, all his fingers heal because he’s a vampire. Keep in mind here, this is a life-or-death situation that involves a fight over a trunk lid. Is this the greatest thing to ever happen in a vampire movie? It just might be.
This all stops being funny a couple seconds later when Tae-ju breaks Sang-hyun’s arm so hard the bone comes out to keep him from throwing the trunk lid away. She’s crying at this point, and you can tell she’s sorry for hurting him but her desire to live outweighs her love for him. It doesn’t matter—he tosses the trunk lid away, and Park Chan-wook makes sure we see and hear the impact of it hitting the water.
That’s it. It’s over. Sang-hyun slowly walks back to the car as Tae-ju stands there, beginning to accept her fate. But then she looks back at the car, where Sang-hyun is making her mother-in-law comfortable. When we cut back to the same exterior shot, she’s missing. Where is she? Oh, she was under the car in a last-ditch effort to save herself, as we see when Sang-hyun puts the car in neutral and pushes it to the cliffside, leaving her exposed once again. She sits up in a huff, and when she goes to grab her luggage, you half-expect her to try to fit inside it.
But no. Now it’s definitely over, and she goes to sit on the hood with him. She just wanted to change her shoes to match his. The lovers share their final drinks of blood. He puts his arm around her. And then we get the first lines of dialogue in six minutes and the last lines of the film:
“I wanted to live with you forever and ever. Together again in hell then.”
“When you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s been fun, Father.”
This exchange succinctly sums up the fundamental difference between them, highlighting how their romance was doomed from the start. Even though Tae-ju turned out to be a remorseless murderer, in her final moments we still feel sympathy for her because we’ve just watched her lose a valiant battle. It’s a tragedy, not only for her but also for him.
The sun rises and the music returns and for a brief moment we get what seems to be a vision of hell with whales in a sea of blood. Park Chan-wook makes us watch these vampires’ faces burn in gruesome detail, focusing in on their eyes as we cut to the very human eyes of Mrs. Ra, glaring at the people who murdered her son (a nod to the ending of the novel). As they burn up, Tae-ju cries the whole time. Sang-hyun never makes a sound.
In the final shot, all we see are shoes and ash. As the remains of Tae-ju fade away, one shoe falls to the ground. And then, as it always does, the other shoe drops. I’ll admit I don’t quite understand the significance of the shoes, but I’m reminded of the fact that vampire Tae-ju did enjoy wearing shoes inside like the Americans do.
I adore this entire scene, as it’s such a wonderful(ly sad) payoff to their relationship, and it epitomizes the story of Sang-hyun even though it gives Tae-ju the spotlight. From the moment Sang-hyun breaks the key off, the ending is foretold. It is set. It is destiny. No matter how much Tae-ju tries to fight it, it will only end one way. And so it is from the moment Sang-hyun is infected with vampire blood. He spends the whole movie fighting, but it will only end one way. Whether it’s a metaphorical struggle against sinful urges or a physical struggle for control of a trunk lid, there are some battles you simply can’t win.