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    In the mood for blood

    Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" puts a demented spin on the vampire movie.


    No good deed goes unpunished in Park Chan-wook's new movie, "Thirst," least of all that of Sang-hyun, a mild-mannered priest who submits to an experimental vaccine to help eliminate a deadly virus — and winds up needing a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire and flips his life upside down. What had started out as a clear moral choice leads Sang-hyun into a world of ambiguity, where he must make tough decisions about the sanctity and quality of life. And drink a lot of blood in the process.

    Original title: Bakjwi.
    Directed by: Park Chan-wook.
    Written by: Jeong Seo-Gyeong, Park Chan-wook.
    Adapted from the novel "Thérèse Raquin" by: Emile Zola.
    Cast: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, In-hwan Park, Dal-su Oh, Young-chang Song, Mercedes Cabral, Eriq Ebouaney.
    Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon.
    In Korean with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Landmark Sunshine Cinema
    143 East Houston St

    To his credit, Sang-hyun (played with sinewy sensitivity by Song Kang-ho of "The Host") finds an honorable way to satisfy his need for blood: Rather than kill, he slyly sips from the IV of a comatose patient in the hospital where he spends his days ministering to the ill and dying. He takes just enough to sustain himself, and the patient never knows the difference. Sang-hyun could almost have felt sanguine about his unsettling situation if not for cravings of another sort. His friend's wife, Tae-ju (saucer-eyed sylph Kim Ok-vin), has somehow never seemed more attractive, and sensing his interest, she takes the opportunity to manipulate him into helping her escape her suffocating marriage to Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun, who with his bowl haircut and goofy grin is simultaneously hilarious and haunting), a soft-brained, molly-coddled mama's boy whom Sang-hyun has known since childhood.

    Of course, Tae-ju is hardly forcing him when they finally give in to their mutual lust. For Sang-hyun, blood is a gateway to a much more ruinous addiction: carnal desire. But unlike the priest, Tae-ju has no moral compass. She's rebellious and feral. When she learns Sang-hyun is a vampire, she quickly moves from fear and horror to fascination and envy. He is an immortal with superhuman strength, and she wants to have that kind of power too. When she finally achieves it and Sang-hyun makes her a vampire, no neck or wrist is safe, nor is our earnest priest's heart.

    Many couples have power struggles, but the screen hasn't seen a love affair as volatile as this in a long time, or maybe ever. The body count rises as Sang-hyun and Tae-ju work out their issues — a husband is murdered, and family members are slain — and many harsh words are spoken. Referring to Sang-hyun's pacifist preference for blood stolen from the hospital's supply, Tae-ju derides him as an "easy-blood-sucking coward." No, theirs is not a match made in heaven nor in hell.

    The screenplay, by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, is a variation on Emile Zola's 1867 novel "Thérèse Raquin," and it would be fascinating to know what the French writer would make of "Thirst." The plot is virtually identical — minus the vampire angle — but the film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, is signature Chan-wook. The director, best known for his "Vengeance Trilogy" ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance"), has an operatic style based on the concept that more is more: lots of gory close-ups and stomach-turning sound effects (the suction-cup kisses between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju are nauseating rather than erotic), a sumptuous palette, arthouse cinematography, high drama, and earthy comedy.

    "Thirst" is an immersive experience — Chan-wook sweeps you up completely, just as when early in their courtship, Sang-hyun scoops up Tae-ju and leaps off a building into the gorgeous night sky, to prove to her that he can indeed fly. The movie is all the more compelling because one of them has no idea where he's headed.

    JULY 31, 2009

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