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Movie Review

Thirst

Priest-turned-vampire has a hearty ‘Thirst’

Kim Ok-vin (left) and Song Kang-ho in 'Thirst,' directed by the acclaimed Park Chan-wook. Kim Ok-vin (left) and Song Kang-ho in "Thirst," directed by the acclaimed Park Chan-wook. (Focus Features)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 21, 2009

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After seeing “Thirst,’’ I can’t shake the image of Park Chan-wook, the ferociously talented director of Korean action-horror movies like “Oldboy,’’ cruising the aisles in the supermarket of movie genres. He’s piling his shopping cart with this and that: a vampire fantasy, a disease-epidemic drama, a “Postman Always Rings Twice’’ slice of murderous adultery. A little l’amour fou, some Emile Zola, a lot of gore. At times, “Thirst’’ seems hellbent on proving Park can do it all, and without a sign of strain.

On that last count, the film’s a slight disappointment. “Thirst’’ keeps coming up against the limitations of its various inspirations like a bumper car on a crowded court. On almost every other level, the film’s audaciously entertaining, at times even quite moving. You just have to have the stomach for it. Until Park’s 2006 insane-asylum romance “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK’’ gets a proper release in this country, “Thirst’’ will do nicely.

Song Kang-ho, the brooding Korean superstar and featured player of Park classics like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,’’ is cast, against all common sense, as a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun. The father has a martyr complex: He volunteers as a test subject for a virulent Ebola-like disease and, after a sudden relapse and blood transfusion, emerges from high-tech quarantine completely cured. A miracle? Legions of the devout think so. In fact, Sang-hyun has accidentally been transfused with vampire’s blood. (We never find out which vampire. He probably lied on the forms.)

The specifics of Sang-hyun’s new condition are bizarre and gross and matter-of-factly presented, and Park has great fun with them until he gets sidetracked by the appearance of Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), a bored housewife married to a sickly mama’s boy (Shin Ha-kyun). The lust between the priest and Tae-ju is incendiary - the director has acknowledged Zola’s “Therese Raquin’’ as an influence - even as Sang-hyun tries to hold on to what tatters of Christian morality he has left. Not so with the wife, who blossoms from an abused mouse to a goddess of desire in carnal increments. And that’s before she discovers what her lover has for dinner.

“Thirst’’ is deliriously bonkers and keeps getting more so; you watch it holding your breath, waiting to see where Park will zigzag next. What holds it all together - what makes it work as a movie - is Kim’s astonishing performance and the boundless thirst she implies, for sexual release, for blood, for power. In addition to everything else, the movie has more than a little classic women’s melodrama in it, with its put-upon heroine bursting through years of repression and righteously vowing to even the score with an uncaring world. By the final scenes, “Thirst’’ has gone even further, becoming the tenderest of monster movies. Call it “Sympathy for Lady Vampire.’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

Because of a reporting error, an actress in the Korean movie "Thirst" was misidentified in a review in Friday's (8/21) "g" section. The name of the actress who plays the character Tae-ju is Kim Ok-vin.

Related

'Thirst'

Another vampire flick

South Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose movie "Thirst" (above, actor Song Kang-ho) brings a wicked twist to vampire lore, talks about pushing boundaries.

THIRST Directed by: Park Chan-wook

Written by: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-vin

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 133 minutes

Rated: R (graphic bloody violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content, nudity and language - the works)

In Korean, with subtitles

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