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MOVIE REVIEW

'Thirst' is a vampire movie with intellectual heft

July 31, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

Are you hungering for that rare vampire movie with serious intellectual heft, ravishing undead, biting passion and a healthy splash of irony as well as iron in all that spilled red blood?

Wait no longer, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" should satisfy.

Though the subject is vampires, this is not a horror film, at least not in any of the traditional ways we think of horror with its thrills and chills, shrieks and shocks. Instead, Park has created a rumination on morality and mortality that is not at all deadly, but funny and profound and at times intensely erotic.

"Thirst," the Jury Prize winner at the Cannes International Film Festival this year stars Song Kang-ho as a brooding young priest whose efforts at self-sacrifice lead him into a high-risk experimental medical program. Things do not go well, and a tainted blood transfusion turns out to be lifesaving in ways he never imagined.

The priest becomes the predator, but in what has become a modern-day trend (see "Twilight" and "True Blood"), the undead cleric has adopted medicine's governing principle -- first do no harm. Which is all well and good except there is the matter of that unquenchable thirst that makes even the best intentions a struggle.

Park, who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung, has surrounded Song with trials and temptations. The most deadly turns out to be carnal desire in the winsome shape of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), a devil in a blue kimono if there ever was one.

Soon there is an intriguing web of deception being spun around and by our tortured priest as he moves between siphoning blood from patients at a nearby hospital, assisting suicides and a weekly mah-jongg game.

Mah-jongg, and soon other far more deadly games, is played at the house where Tae-ju lives. Her situation there is complicated -- an abandoned child the family took in, raised like a daughter by the domineering matriarch, but now married to the idiot son, who was a childhood friend of the priest.

Incest? Technically no. Regardless, this is not the question that interests Park as it did in his seminal 2003 treatise on the subject, "Old Boy."

Nevertheless, sexual relations and relationships are usually somewhere at the dark heart of Park's work. Mix that predilection with vampire mythology, long cloaked in sexual complexity (see Anne Rice's "Interview With a Vampire" et al.), and it was clear that he would have much to play with.

And Park has taken full advantage of the possibilities. Though the filmmaker has made a career of examining human frailty within brutal landscapes where violence and revenge battle it out with god and philosophy for the soul, "Thirst" may be his most fully realized film yet. Certainly its visual style is stunning, the color pallet shifting from muted browns to stark whites, the set design from cluttered to spare, as the vampire instincts take hold.

Nothing about "Thirst" is tentative. Where many filmmakers opt for their undead to swoop in for a quick bite and drain, Park has chosen to linger on the process, a decision that is more unsettling than frightening as you watch life slipping away in the face of uncontrollable need.

He has also given us a love triangle between the priest, the pretty one and the son that is both ordinary and exceptional in the ways it tempts and tests our players. For starters, "Thirst" has some of the most exhaustive vampire sex to be found, at least in the art house versus the back rooms of video stores or the inky corridors of the Internet.

Where forbidden desire grows, deceit is sure to follow, and it quickly does. This is where Park slips into the surreal in ways that don't quite work for the story, which otherwise grounds its vampires in the rhythms of a relatively ordinary existence, the feasting rituals notwithstanding.

Song, one of Korea's top actors, is mesmerizing as the meditative priest, and Kim proves a tantalizingly fiery and unexpected counterbalance. In one particularly trenchant moment, the two lovers sit on a beach, watching the waves roll in. It's just before sunrise. Breakfast anyone?

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Thirst'

MPAA rating: R for graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes; Korean with English subtitles

Playing: In limited release, locally at Laemmle's Sunset 5 and M Park 4 Theatre

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