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Kim Ok-vin stars as Tae-ju in Park Chan-wook's Thirst.
Kim Ok-vin stars as Tae-ju in Park Chan-wook's Thirst.

Vampire thriller goes for the jugular Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Thirst

  • Directed by Park Chan-wook
  • Starring Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook and Shin Ha-kyun
  • Classification: 18A

There has been a resurgence of vampires on the big screen of late. But horror buffs, at least, know that most of these movies follow a familiar bloody trail. So the prospect of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook taking on the genre - in a story about a priest-turned-vampire - is more than tantalizing.

Thirst, which shared the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, is juicy filmmaking - psychologically rich, cathartic, kinky, visually engaging and almost free of vampire-movie clichés. Park, a lapsed Catholic, also explores the moral conflicts facing the priest, whose new-found taste for blood (which he initially satisfies by sucking on a patient's IV) also awakens more, um, earthly desires such as gambling and sex.

Park takes his time with the setup before going for the jugular. Father Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho of The Host ) is devoted to his hospital work, hearing confessions and administering last rites. But he is going through the motions: In search of greater purpose, he signs up for a medical experiment to find a cure for a deadly virus involving nasty lesions and worse; all the volunteers, mainly priests, have died so far. Whether the priest is seeking martyrdom or suicide becomes moot when he miraculously recovers after receiving a blood transfusion. Aha, you say - but wait, the fangs don't come out just yet.

Father Sang-hyun is soon called to the bedside of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), a sickly hypochondriac, and finds himself a guest at the family's mah-jong table, presided over by Kang-woo's widowed mother (Kim Hae-sook). The deliciously domineering and hard-drinking mother married off her son to the sullen but alluring Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), an orphaned girl she raised as her own. Over a couple of lengthy, erotic scenes Tae-ju seduces the priest, who is, meanwhile, struggling with the burden of vampirism.

The priest's evolving relationship with the family, and his increasingly unhinged affair with Tae-ju, are the heart of Thirst . For this, Park borrows imaginatively, and quite faithfully in several important respects, from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin . For those unfamiliar with the book, I won't reveal the fates of the mother and son. I'll just say what happens to them is fun and fascinating to watch - but it has nothing to do with vampires.

I'm not saying Thirst is two movies, but the action inspired by Zola's novel is simply more interesting than the vampire stuff. The lovers' practical concerns also bring to mind such noir classics as Double Indemnity, but we're not in obvious genre territory.

Although Song, with his physicality and charisma, is certainly well cast here, the movie ultimately belongs to Kim. Her wide-ranging performance - from docile wife to ravenous vixen - makes Thirst the summer's most lip-smacking movie treat.

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