By Admin | July 23, 2009

One the undisputed stars of the so-called Korean new wave of a few years back, poor Park Chan-wook is experiencing a bit of a critical backlash these days. Much like the Korean film industry in general, it seems the initial attention he received for his genre-breaking revenge trilogy (“Sympathy For Mister Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”) was too much of a good thing, and the critics who had initially embraced him as a brave new voice have started to denounce his obsession with violence. Which is a shame because his latest film, “Thirst,” is possibly his most accessible and restrained film to date.

Song Kang-ho (“The Host,” “Sympathy For Mister Vengeance”) stars as Father Sang-hyung, a humble priest who tends to the ill in a hospital ministry. Frustrated with his inability to ease the suffering of his patients and undergoing something of a crisis of faith, he journeys to Africa to take part in secretive Vatican experiments where he is willingly infected with the plague-like “Emmanuel virus.” Like all 50 of the participants, Sang-hyung eventually succumbs to the disease, and not even a last-minute blood transfusion can save him. However, moments after being declared dead he is heard praying and ends up returning to Korea a folk hero with rumored healing abilities.

Uncomfortable with his new celebrity, Hyung tries to return to his ministry, but finds himself constantly interrupted by people desperately seeking his services as a healer. Once such encounter ends up reuniting him with Kang-woo (Shin Ha-Kyun), his mother (Kim Hae-sook) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin); childhood friends who used to take in the orphan Sang-hyung. It is also around this time that the pastor makes a rather startling discovery about himself: his senses of smell and hearing are ultra sensitive, sunlight burns his skin, and he has an unnatural desire to drink human blood. That’s right: the priest has become a vampire.

The combination of vampires and Emile Zola seems an unlikely one, but that’s exactly what Park’s pulled off, with “Thirst” actually remaining shockingly faithful to Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin.” In fact, despite all the blood letting, “Thirst” is in fact both an interesting twist on the vampire film and the film noir with Tae-ju becoming a rather ruthless femme fatale eager to take advantage of Sang-hyung’s sudden need to reevaluate his value system. Anchored throughout by Park’s trademark black humor, the film is less epic than his last two efforts, but this more intimate approach helps to ground the story given the supernatural aspects. It also helps that the vampirism is treated so matter of factly, putting the focus more on the psycho-drama of this tale of doomed love.

More than anything, what really makes things works are the performances. Newcomer Kim Ok-vin, in only her second film appearance, is particularly compelling as the alternately virginal and seductive Tae-ju, and the always reliable Song brings necessary sympathy to the cursed priest. The two also display some impressive chemistry in a love scene that manages to be as passionate as it is awkward.

While lacking the operatic sumptuousness of “Lady Vengeance,” or the sheer breakneck brutality of “Oldboy,” “Thirst” is a compelling drama, a great new twist on vampirism and a welcome departure for one of the Korean new-wave’s brightest stars.

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