Park Chan-wook’s latest work “Thirst,’’ like other great movies, makes you forget you’re watching one, and you won’t be able to stop it from shaking up every cell in your body unless you dart for the exit. Park-brand films are undoubtedly an acquired taste, and this vampire-priest story, slated to compete in Cannes next month, is certainly not for those with weak stomachs. Nor is it, despite being replete with tasteful humor only Song Kang-ho (“Secret Sunshine’’) can pull off and being the first South Korean film to be co-produced by a major Hollywood studio, for those seeking light-hearted entertainment.
This reporter admits having had to close her eyes and plug her ears for some of the extreme scenes, but still had the ultimate audiovisual experience discovering ironic amusement and empathizing with the protagonist’s frenetic actions, disillusionment and despair, listless surrender and dissipation, and, finally, spiritual transformation.
In this story inspired by Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin,’’ Park creates a sinister parallel universe where 19th-century French realism and the Western vampire myth melt naturally into modern South Korea. Visually, things are familiar yet exotic, with local Catholic churches evoking a European flair; gaudy, outdated boutiques that are set in a Japanese colonial-era style home; and striking claustrophobic spaces a la Stanley Kubrick.
Regardless of one’s faith, the movie inspires you to look back to the Bible as well as literary classics on religious themes such as Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.’’
The movie most obviously alludes to the first three chapters of Genesis. Sang-hoon (Song) is a devout Catholic priest residing peacefully in the house of God, like Adam in the Garden of Eden. His only flaw is that he is overly zealous _ in the novel, which Park co-wrote with scriptwriter Jeong Seo-gyeong and novelist Choi In, we learn that Sang-hoon always had a dangerous propensity to sacrifice whatever means for salvation. Despite the behest of his father figure, Father Noh (Park In-hwan, “The Quiet Family’’), Sang-hoon volunteers for a risky medical experiment in Africa that the Vatican has yet to approve. There, he contracts a virus ― most appropriately called Eve ― and dies, but a transfusion with mysterious blood returns him back to “life’’ as a vampire.
When he comes home, news of Sang-hoon’s resurrection attracts a cult following of the desperate and the decrepit who are seeking miracles. But Sang-hoon eventually succumbs to his thirst for blood and other hitherto tamed human (or animalistic?) instincts, and begins a sexual relationship with his friend’s wife Tae-ju (starlet-turned-femme fatale Kim Ok-vin, “Dasepo Naughty Girls’’). He casts off his vestigial collar and allows himself to be persuaded by Tae-ju to kill her impotent husband (most convincingly played by Shin Ha-kyun, a star of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’’).
But like the whiskey priest of the Greene novel, who discovers the true meaning of being a “father’’ through breaking the rules ― i.e. fathering an actual child ― the wickedly talented Song as Sang-hoon suggests that light shines brightest in the depths of darkness, and that deliverance is not a lost cause for even the damned. The director explores the murky line between faith and obsession, love and lust, martyrdom and suicide, and blessings and curses.
The cast and crew, including the most talented supporting actors such as Kim Hae-sook (“Viva! Love’’) as the hysterical mother-in-law, craft the story with great gusto and virtuosity. In spite of the dark subject matter, you will be laughing throughout the movie, and might agree with Tae-ju and gasp “how cute’’ upon seeing Sang-hoon sip blood like Cool-Aid in a bottle and check in a hand mirror afterward to see if his lips are free of the scarlet stuff.
Of course “Thirst’’ is incomplete without Park’s trademark juxtaposition of serene classical music and harrowing moments of violence. The director reunites with composer Jo Yeong-wook, and opts for J.S. Bach’s “Cantata No. 82’’ this time. Park, having grown up in a Catholic environment, said that “Thirst’’ is close to his heart, with the protagonist modeled after his own “pathetic’’ personality, and the evocative background melody transforms into a monologue as Sang-hoon plays it himself on the recorder.
In his last film three years ago, “I’m a Cyborg but That’s OK,’’ Park tampered with the digital Thomas Viper for a bubbly, surreal romance, and many say “Thirst’’ marks his return, via analogue film, to the darker themes of his landmark “Vengeance Trilogy.’’ “Thirst’’ does speak a common gory tongue similar to the latter works, and Park said he wanted to create a certain ambiance and texture only analogue could capture. But this tale of redemption is ultimately a human love story, like “Cyborg,’’ and suggests that all of his movies are as such.
A small regret is that the movie does not go as far as the novel to feature more character development, such as Sang-hoon’s orphaned childhood and frantic search for a father figure, and the computer graphic effects, such as Sang-hoon and Tae-ju’s crazed Superman and Lois Lane moments, are rather awkward.
In theaters April 30. 133 minutes. 18 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.