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Thirst Review – He’s a Vampire. No, He’s a Priest. Wait — He’s Both!

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A gentle priest is inadvertently transformed into a vampire in writer-director Park Chan-wook gore-soaked love story, Thirst. Park’s melodramatic “revenge trilogy” — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance — set a high bar for perversity and squirm-inducing violence that Thirst, loosely inspired by Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, easily matches by diving headlong into the taboo-testing tale of a dedicated priest whose bloodlust awakens other earthly hungers unbecoming to a man of spirit.

Provincial priest Sang Hyun (Song Kang-ho) spends much of his time comforting parishioners afflicted with the horrific Emmanuel Virus, a plague characterized by disfiguring skin lesions, hemorrhagic bleeding and a 100 percent fatality rate. Galvanized by the gruesome spectacle of such suffering, he volunteers to become a research subject at an African clinic dedicated to finding a vaccine, undeterred by the fact that, to date, no one has survived the experimental process.

For all his piety and spiritual generosity, Father Sang does not prove the exception; he contracts EV and dies, disfigured and in agony, as the staff performs an emergency blood transfusion. And then, to everyone’s astonishment, he revives. Could God himself have intervened on behalf of his loyal servant? Maybe, if you assume that God is, as Mark Twain famously suggested, a malign thug. Father Sang’s recovery, which spawns an instant cult of the “bandaged priest” who can heal the sick, comes at a terrible price: He’s become a vampire, tormented by an intense craving for human blood. If Father Sang fails to quench his ungodly thirst, the disease returns. Drinking blood, however, leads the pious padre down the garden path of sin, with stops to gamble, incite unclean thoughts in others, fornicate and kill.

Like Park’s vengeance trilogy — which put him on the international filmmaking map — Thirst takes place in a Sadean world where goodness (or even simple human decency) is punished, while cruelty, indifference to the pain of others and hypocrisy are rewarded. But unlike those earlier movies, which unfolded in circumscribed worlds defined by the bitterly baroque tribulations of pitiful individuals, Thirst goes for the big picture. If Sang, a priest with spotless moral character and steely self-discipline, can wind up sipping blood from the IV of a comatose man, seducing the wife (Kim Ok-vin) of a childhood friend and leading her into the kind of temptation that pretty much guarantees an eternal dip in the lake of fire, then it’s not just social mores or religious institutions stacked against the average schmuck. It’s the universe, pure and simple. But enough of the thematic underpinnings: You want to know what’s in it for straight-up horror buffs.

Well, let’s see… there’s Cronenbergian body horror, vampire eroticism, sun-blistered flesh and a whole lot of blood — the scene in which Sang begins vomiting gore while playing a plaintive air on his flute is about as gross as it gets. And for all the subtext bubbling beneath the movie’s surface, Park has actually lightened up a little: Where his revenger’s tales pack the power of classical tragedy, Thirst plays like grand guignol farce… but farce with a dark, haunting heart.

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