Thirst: Reviewed by Jordan

By Robert Jordan

The gifted South Korean director Park Chan-wook infuses his strange, eerie vampire story “Thirst” with a sinister wit, macabre humor and visual flamboyance that conjures a perverse level of excitement.

Park gained an international profile five years ago at Cannes with “Old Boy,” the festival's jury president Quentin Tarantino lending his considerable seal of approval on the director's violent, blood soaked tale of vengeance. “Thirst” is reportedly the first ever South Korean production to receive funding from an American production company, Focus Features International. (Focus' American distribution arm is releasing the movie in the United States in July).

Park said in the production notes he has been trying to make this film for ten years. He built the premise around an interesting literary source, French writer Emile Zola's 19th century “Therese Raquin.”  In the movie's second half, Park finds another classic source, James M. Cain's “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” (Park's great talent has been for finding unorthodox sources, riffing on them for his own uses and enigmatic pleasures.) As a young man, Park was a committed cinephile who devoured the classic texts of the Western canon, and he has said in interviews his favorite director is Alfred Hitchcock.

Like Hitchcock, Park is both a stylist and a very talented craftsman. The movie's set up is both ingenious and involving. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a devoted young priest in a rural Korean community who is dispatched to an African outpost. He sacrifices himself as a medical subject for a team of doctors trying to develop an antidote to a particularly vicious strain of the Emanuel Virus (EV). The experiment goes awry, he contracts the deadly strain and appears to die. Given a transfusion, he is miraculously “reanimated,” though he quickly discerns from the new symptoms that his transformation is not entirely natural.

Repatriated to his community, where his status as a “miracle survivor,” occasions all manner of a new band of devoted followers, Sang-hyun is quickly sought after by the locals for his ability to alter the most pessimistic or dire of medical conditions. (Park's sly satire of Korean Christianity extends on the similar ideas promoted in “Secret Sunshine”). The domineering mother, Mrs. Ra (Kim Hae-suk) of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) implores the young doctor to intervene to help her son.

Sang-hyun is quickly insinuated into the peculiar family dynamics. Entrusted to save the life of the somewhat pathetic and ingratiating Kang-woo, the doctor is immediately attracted to the story of the man's beautiful wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin, a stunner). Constantly humiliated by her ostentatious mother-in-law, Tae-ju is treated more in the manner of a servant. (A back story reveals that she was abandoned by her own mother as a girl, and the family took her in.)

Suddenly injected with power, speed, strength and astonishing physical ability, the doctor calls on those transformative abilities to seduce the young woman. She proves an too-willing accomplice. Their first sexual encounter, graphic, carnal and deeply sensuous, initiates  Tae-ju into the doctor's nocturnal world. Explicit sexuality, especially female nudity, remains fairly taboo in much of proper Asian culture. The ravenous sexual energy of the two is both thrilling and jolting.

It proves a prelude to the larger conflict as Sang-hyon, at heart a pious, considerate young man, must try to reconcile his uncontrollable urges to his doctor's oath. In a perverse twist, he becomes an existential vampire, a reluctant avenger. His desire for Tae-ju not only deepens their intense erotic long for each other, it jolts her out of her timid, accepting nature and alters her own psychology.

As she hovers between the two worlds, drawn more and more into the darker side of the untrammeled power afforded by Sang-hyeon's condition, she finds it all too easy to use those powers to personal, mischievous ends.

The Cain connection kicks in when she begins to orchestrate a plot for Sang-hyon to do away with her husband. The movie's second half is even more delirious and baroque. The young lovers, freed from the social constraints, turn more methodical and deliberate in their voracious activities. Like “Old Boy,” the narrative splinters in the second half, given to a more abstracted, hallucinatory style in which reality and nightmare constantly commingle.

The movie's style is not for every taste. For all his talent, Park is almost too much of a good thing. He doesn't always know when to let up. At 135 minutes, the movie feels overextended, the suspension of the drama thinning out the sense of thrill.

But there's also a point where you forget about plot, story, meaning and simply surrender to the gorgeous visuals. Park and his great cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon really know how to compose and shoot. “Thirst” has some incredibly beautiful visual constructions, like the pivotal moment Sang-hyun straps Tae-ju to his back and the two outlaw lovers float in the air.

Perhaps most exciting, the movie is genuinely very funny without being unnecessarily cruel towards those on the dark side of the visual punch line. In “Thirst,” even when there’s blood, guts and severed limbs you can’t take your eyes off of it.