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Movie Review: Thirst

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Chan-wook Park cemented an already burgeoning reputation among passionate cinephiles with his 2003 film Oldboy. While his latest effort, Thirst, doesn't rise nearly to that level, it is an alternately fascinating, rigorous and maddening piece of cinema. Loosely based on Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, the film follows Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who is accidentally transformed into a sort of vampire by a failed medical experiment (note: Zola's novel does not have Christian vampires). Sang-hyeon is naturally conflicted by his brutal new nature and tries to find ways in which he can live as a vampire while preserving his humanity.

The manner in which he does this is as pragmatic as it is ghoulish. For instance, rather than sinking his teeth into the pearly flesh of innocent damosels, Sang-hyeon suckles on the saggy infusion bags of comatose patients at the hospital where, ironically, he provides spiritual counseling to the afflicted. It speaks to Park's invention and specificity as a director that the simple act of lying on the floor and drinking from an IV tube -- initially a black comic moment -- grows increasingly depraved with each horrifying episode. Sang-hyeon struggles to persist in this half-life -- obedient to his faith -- but he is no match for the growing darkling within.

His end begins when he meets the wispy and damaged Tae-joo. The wife of the loutish Kang-woo (and de facto slave of his mother), she is instantly attracted to the mysterious and thoughtful priest. Increasingly unable to resist his lusty vampire nature, Sang-hyeon circles Tae-joo constantly in his mind before finally binding her in a passionate clinch one afternoon at her home. The effect is immediate: two strangers become one. His faith to the Church falls away as easily as her fealty to her husband does. She is amazed by him; he is entranced by her. Only one obstacle remains to thwart their love: he is a realmless vampire while she is all too mortal.

It would be unfair to discuss any more plot than that since the film's success depends on an assortment of unexpected narrative twists and pivots. This is a dense and layered film, content to ruminate on the psychological struggle that Sang-hyeon constantly faces (a struggle from which Tae-joo is largely immune). Recent American vampire works like Twilight or True Blood focus on the sexiness and faux-loneliness of the vampire existence but only in the most superficial way. Thirst throttles those qualities way up: the sex is intensely physical and hot (think Lust, Caution) while the loneliness is endless, consuming and terrifying.

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As with any film that tries to tell a huge amount of story, there are parts that could probably be excised. Thirst does tend to drag a bit in the middle (mostly due to a false climax that would have actually been a quite interesting climax), but Park serves up enough narrative that one's wandering focus is usually quickly directed to something new. To his great credit, every scene feels meticulously crafted wtih a very specific intent. While not every scene works (as I mentioned in the opening, parts of the film are maddeningly obtuse), it feels almost luxurious as a watcher to have a director who is so obviously interested in challenging the viewer.

As Sang-hyeon and Tae-joo, Kang-ho Song and Ok-vin Kim are perfectly cast and invest their characters with depth that the script doesn't always provide. Kim is particularly compelling as a shy woman who ultimately becomes something quite like a monster. Few films have truly poetic endings -- most that try are either maudlin or opaque -- but Thirst certainly does. Park backs his characters into a corner where there doesn't appear to be any way out. But there is one way out. A way out that you would never expect the characters to take. It's a rich, strange even comic conclusion that adheres closely to Zola's novel and leaves the viewer entirely satisfied.