Finally, there's a vampire movie worthy of the title The Hunger — even if it arrives under the more potable name Thirst. Carnal appetite, not a parched palate, is the accelerant that fuels this perverse, prankish and merrily anticlerical exercise in bloodletting from Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director whose films function like the moral-retribution mechanisms in the Saw movies — traps with no way out but a permanently scar-ring exit.
Vampirism would seem an unusually...genteel diversion for Park, best known for the "Vengeance Trilogy," which reached its apex with the Jacobean cruelties of 2003's devious Oldboy. Starting with 2002's Byzantine kidnapping-gone-awry saga Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the former film critic and one-time philosophy student has made his subject (and method) the self-destroying machinery of violence. Once somebody throws a switch, the unstoppable gears of his plots mangle the guiltless and guilty alike.
But the vampire genre proves to be a squishy wet dream for a filmmaker who regularly works in a palette of gougings, impalings and blunt-force traumas, with the odd electrocution or tongue-snipping as karmic relief. In Thirst, which shared this year's Jury Prize at Cannes, Park zeroes in on the moral and sexual squeamishness underlying the cult of Twilight — wannabe Lestats whose idea of eternal night is a Hot Topic midnight sale.
Thirst's hero, the priest Sang-hyeon (played by South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho, who can do active and passive simultaneously), despairs of his powerlessness in a ravaged world. Seeking a chance to make a difference, the doubt-plagued do-gooder offers himself to a vaccine trial against a deadly African virus. As warned, his skin ruptures and pustulates, and God evidently answers his prayer to "pull out my nails, so that I may grasp nothing" — leaving the bandaged, mummified priest to wither and die.
This somber, straight-faced opening is mostly a feint. Park tips his hand only in a gruesome sight gag — the leprous priest playing his recorder, from which pours not music but blood. Then, a miracle: Sang-hyeon rebounds from death, the zits recede and a cult of worshippers begin brandishing a gauze-wrapped crucifix and begging for his healing powers. A relapse later, the priest wakes with a sickening realization: The vim and vigor that his followers take for divine light has more to do with a newfound aversion to sunlight — and pesky new cravings for blood and other unnamable desires.
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It's at this point that Park notches up the melodrama from clinical cool to hothouse fever, insinuating his infected man of God into the seething household of idiot-manchild buddy Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), his martinet mom, Lady Ra (Kim Hae-sook) and Kang-woo's dissatisfied wife, Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin, in a star-making show of erotic fireworks). Now ravenous for flesh as well as blood, with a hard-on he can't flagellate away, the priest locks eyes with Tae-joo. As it turns out, she's less than repulsed by his secret: "Vampires are cuter than I thought."
A vampire priest? The gift of eternal life as an STD? Holy Luis Buñuel! From here on, as the lovers scheme about what to do with Tae-joo's inconvenient spouse, the plotting borrows mightily from Émile Zola's proto-noir Thérèse Raquin — albeit with Zola's naturalism embellished by superhuman powers, CGI rooftop leaps and color-coordinated bloodshed. But it plays as malicious mischief, diverting but curiously weightless. In Oldboy, the characters' tragic dimensions gave Park's trip-wired torments a kind of Shakespearean horror, the blow of wounds struck to the soul. Thirst settles for a macabre jollity as the unlikable characters affix nastily ironic fates to each other. Park's postman doesn't ring twice — he just piles a lot of bloody packages on the doorstep.
But Park's voluptuous style fits a genre that is all appetite — or should be. With Twilight, the vampire movie for vegetarians, as only the most obvious example, mainstream movies on the subject now seem freaked out by the messiness of intercourse: Throat-sucking is okay, but God forbid any other parts see action. The violence in Thirst is less shocking than the slurpy physicality of the sex scenes, oral ravishings that extend to toes and armpits. As the priest's senses unfurl, the whole world seems made of meat — the obscene adipose rippling of Kang-woo's waterbed is a particularly grotesque manifestation of erotic hunger.
Less startling, but equally welcome, is Park's refusal to duck the moral implications typically glossed over by vampire groupies. The fatalism inherent in vampire movies — that once bitten, you have no choice but to feed — suits Park's fascination with protagonists who have basically had free will stolen from them. The most intriguing aspect of Thirst is the steady erosion of Sang-hyeon's ethics, slackened from "do not" to "do not kill" to "do not kill the undeserving" by the lure of those O+ cocktails.