LEWDLING: Kim Ok-vin redefines the meaning of pale and interesting in Korean vampire film 'Thirst.'
'Thirst': Beware a holy vampire
By Richard von Busack
A SENSITIVE PRIEST named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) gets a blood transfusion that saves him from a lethal bout of hemorrhagic fever in Africa. When he returns, a small mob of devotees herald him as a holy wonder worker. Back in his hometown in Korea, the still unwell protagonist of Thirst is taken in by a petit bourgeois family who knew him when he was a boy. The matriarch is a smug dressmaker with a successful shop. Her chronically ill son lounges around in long underwear the color of dried mustard. The son is nursed by his wife—a foster daughter turned daughter-in-law, who married the idiot heir-apparent to the shop out of a desperate lack of anything better to do. Tae-ju, the daughter-in-law, is a workhorse with no hopes; she's a sick-looking bird herself and seems ready to keel over from that old silent-movie disease, neurasthenia. But when Tae-ju gets to know the sensitive priest, with his gentle old-young face and round glasses—so chaste, so suffering, so strangely like John Lennon—something carnal awakes in her. Sang-hyun doesn't quite realize he has an appetite for corpuscles yet. It strikes him suddenly, when he's giving extreme unction to an accident victim. That one fast lick of his own bloody thumb opens the doors of perception, giving him all that pulp fiction vampires have: superstrength, the ability to climb walls, the ability to really see and smell the world around him. And he notices Tae-ju, married or not. The priest is far too pious to do anything about his yearnings. He feeds his hunger by sipping the IV tube of a comatose patient in a hospital. When Tae-ju at last seduces this celibate priest, the breakthrough makes him lose his faith and descend deeper into vampirism. Kim Ok-vin, playing Tae-ju the adulteress (turned, inevitably to murderess), is a phenomenal lewdling. She redefines the terms "pale and interesting." It's the victim in her that draws a compulsive sympathizer like Sang-hyun, who can't understand there'll be some rage in a doormat girl if she suddenly gets a little supernatural power.
The film's Catholic side is waiting to be teased out; the title could derive from "Come unto me all you who thirst." And thanks to his superhealing ability, Sang-hyun can allow his spiritual adviser, a blind priest, to feel his own bleeding heart through a self-made wound in his side; it's a horror-comedy version of the legend of doubting St. Thomas. The little ideas that director Park Chan-wook throws out are all winners; for example, a vampire briskly patting a victim's neck, like a phlebotomist trying to raise up a vein. It's an inspired notion to add blood sucking to the source novel, Zola's scandalous Thérèse Raquin. Thirst keeps running with these ideas into extra innings: crazed vignettes when Sang-hyun and Tae-ju have a clash of philosophy over how to treat the rest of humanity. Park's violent Oldboy left me coldly impressed. If his direction in Oldboy was like the work of the Brian De Palma who made Sisters, Thirst is like the work of the Brian De Palma who made Carrie: the Korean director is now an all-around entertainer with a ghastly, boundlessly pervy sense of humor and a devotion to sophisticated camera work. Who composes horror-movie shots anymore? When talking about "Grand Guignol"—the mix of gore and melodrama that early-20th-century hip Parisians enjoyed, the grandeur gets forgotten: here are the heightened emotions and plausible insanity that make horror great.
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