Calling “Thirst” a Korean vampire movie doesn’t begin to cover it.
Nor does referring to it as an adaptation of Zola’s “Therese Raquin” seem to do the trick. This new film from Park Chan-Wook is both – and more.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with “Thirst,” it’s that Park tries to do too many things. Though not completely successful, it’s still a bold, wildly juicy film that goes for the throat and never relents.
The film begins with Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a relatively hip priest, who longs for greater meaning in his life than his small-town posting would seem to provide. So he volunteers to be a test subject for a vaccine for a virus that only seems to affect Asian missionaries in Africa. But when he contracts the virus anyway, he becomes so sick at one point that he requires a transfusion – and accidentally receives the blood of a vampire.
If you can swing with the idea of a vampire donating at a blood bank, then plugging into the “Therese Raquin” plot should be a cinch. Sang-hyun returns to his parish, where he discovers his new appetite for blood; refusing to kill, he instead slakes his forbidden appetite by occasionally siphoning blood from a comatose patient to whom he ministers, unplugging his IV tube from the bag feeding his arm and using it as a straw to suck blood out of the man.
At the hospital, he runs into a childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), who has a disease or may just be a hypochondriac. Kang-woo’s new bride, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-yin), is a virtual servant to Kang-woo and his mother. Gradually, the vampire priest and the bride become kindred spirits and then lovers. When the lust gets to be too much, they team up to drown Kang-woo.
And that’s even before Sang-hyun turns Tae-joo into a vampire.
Park’s film is a meditation on love, lust and guilt, with a side order of shame – well, perhaps meditation is the wrong word, since the film barely stops its headlong run from incident to incident. Though Park has added the vampire subplot, he follows Zola’s novel faithfully and imaginatively. And, in Kim Ok-yin, he’s got a fearless actress who can play everything from downtrodden to madly bloodthirsty with a fearless passion that’s contagious.
“Thirst” is probably too long, probably too ambitious, probably too sprawling. One thing it never is, however, is boring. It may take wrong turns at times, but it’s a wild ride nonetheless.