Awakened by films like Let the Right One In and the brutal 30 Days of Night (but not you, Twilight), vampires are in the middle of a facelift, making them virtually unrecognizable from their bourgeois, frilly shirt-wearing Anne Rice uncles. With Thirst, hyperkinetic South Korean directing superstar Park Chan-wook seems a prime candidate to continue meshing the haughty emotions and arterial bloodlust of cursed immortals and offer something for gorehounds and dramatists alike.
Park exploded onto the scene with his "Vengeance Trilogy," a series of vicious character studies highlighted by the visceral mindfuck of Oldboy. Intermingling tense narratives about vigilante justice with the starkest visual style since David Fincher's, Park's storytelling is grounded in animalistic carnage and controlled bursts of emotion.
Thirst has drama—and plasma—in spades. It tells the story of Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a devout Roman Catholic priest who seeks a cure for a plague and dies on an operating table, only to be revived through a transfusion tainted with vampire blood. His resurrection turns him into a celebrity saint, drawing the attention of a cancer-stricken childhood friend. Soon the priest is roped into weekly mah-jongg games with the family, including meek-but-randy wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin)—all the while developing heightened senses, a newfound libido, an uncontrollable bloodlust, and a strong aversion to sunlight.
The film begins as the deliberate character study of a man of faith confronted with bestial urges: Sang-hyun reluctantly drinks blood like milkshakes through comatose patients' catheters, and puritanically flogs his newly awakened member after he sees Tae-ju. Park infuses his story with his trademark visuals, offering a new spin on tired genre tropes (the priest's ability to see blood coursing through veins is particularly nuanced). Unfortunately, Park is too striving a filmmaker to let the film hinge on a crisis of belief—and he isn't disciplined enough to hide a crisis of tone.
The priest's affair with his friend's wife quickly escalates into a murder plot, and the minute it's hatched the film spins off the rails. Submissive Tae-ju reveals a kinky side during drawn-out, fetishistic romps, but morphs into a manipulative psychopath with little prodding. Similarly, Sang-hyun's morals jump all over the place: His drive to help others is what turned him into a monster, but his reluctance to kill disappears when the going gets dull.
Park's subdued examination turns into a ghastly exercise in horror, sprinkled with moments of absurdist comedy, hallucinatory suspense, and enough blood to give a whale a full transfusion. It's nasty fun, but the lack of cohesion makes it difficult to know whether to cringe or cackle. Like his protagonist, Park loses his grapple with too many urges. Thirst is easily the best hallucinatory erotic vampire-priest thriller with gory slapstick action comedy to date, but a simpler vampire-priest flick might have flowed better. R.
opens Friday at Fox Tower.