From its opening in-joke – a stock horror movie shot of branches rattling unsettlingly against an oh-soi-nviting window – to the apocalyptic finale set beside a blood red sea, Park Chan-wook’s (Old Boy) Cannes Jury Prize winner joins Let The Right One In in raising the bar for the vampire movie. It also raises the stakes – here, the price of a bite is no longer lost innocence but eternal damnation.
After catching an infection from a blood transfusion, ascetic priest Song Kang-ho (The Host and Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Mr Vengeance) begins the traumatic, not to mention sacrilegious, process of mutation. He vomits blood, lesions cover his skin, menstrual fluids make him ravenous and his astonishing new physical powers allow him to leap buildings and lift huge weights. He’s less Nosferatu than the Neo of an unholy Matrix where everything is possible – everything except salvation.
Licking his spattered hands as he prays for another lost soul, drinking from the veins of coma victims and converting willing conscript Kim Ok-vin in a blur of bodies and bloodlust, it’s all he can do to stop himself turning from vampire to monster.
Growing in verve and vision, Chan-wook dazzles here, switching from passages of monastic contemplation to stabs of virtuoso violence in a split second. One astonishing sequence sees the sensitive Kang-ho assaulted by sound – clattering mah-jong tiles, Ok-vin’s stricken footfalls, crackling cigarettes – as his walls bleed noise and insects crawl over his skin.
Elsewhere the score flirts with Bach, and Chung Seo-kyung’s overstuffed screenplay makes mischievous mincemeat of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. How’s that for ambition?
By turns thrilling, funny, confounding and certifiable, Thirst is also extravagantly overlong – could nobody have Kill Billed it in two? – but this much invention crammed into 90 minutes would likely melt brains.
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A baroque shocker of sensuous unease and cinematic excess marbled with veins of jet-black comedy, Thirst is far from a perfect film, but it might still prove to be a great one.