Emile Zola meets New Age vampirism in South Korean helmer Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst,” an overlong stygian comedy that badly needs a transfusion of genuine inspiration. Inspired by and following key plot elements in Zola’s 19th-century novel of murder and adultery, “Therese Raquin,” the two-hour-plus pic is slow to warm up and largely goes around in circles thereafter, with repetitive (and often plain goofy) jokes about hemoglobin lust and bone-crunching, sanguinary violence. Some major surgery could help its specialized offshore potential, but this is startlingly unnuanced work from the director of such classy fare as “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”
Film opened strongly April 30 in South Korea, and has taken 1.75 million admissions in its first two frames. But in its second week, it was knocked out of the top spot by action-comedy “My Girlfriend Is an Agent.”
Setup is strong, as Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), a well-liked priest in a small town who works at the local hospital, contracts and dies from the deadly Emmanuel virus after volunteering in a project to discover a vaccine. After being brought back to life by a blood transfusion, he gradually realizes he’s been turned into a vampire, which gives him an extremely healthy sexual appetite but also requires regular doses of blood to keep his skin free of small boils.
Choice bits of Zola’s novel start to appear as Sang-hyeon starts an affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the wife of his childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-gyun). Dowdy, put-upon Tae-ju, who spends her time looking after the sickly Kang-woo and being bullied by his doting mom, Mrs. Ra (as in “Raquin”; Kim Hae-suk), blooms into a voracious, free-spirited lover with Sang-hyeon. Soon they’re a pair in more ways than one, as their thirst for sex, thrills and red corpuscles turns them into mass murderers.
Project has been in Park’s mind for a decade — always with thesp Song in mind — but at some stage, what began as a typically wry, genre-bending take on sin and redemption seems to have shed most of its subtext. Though Sang-hyeon finds himself an object of worship as he develops special powers of strength and flight, what could have been a wonderfully transgressive spin on religion and its flipside devolves, especially in its second half, into blood-spattered, low-key farce revolving around a single, overworked idea.
Early grossout scenes lose their shock value with repetition, as the script amps up the semi-cartoonish violence in the third act. Tae-ju begins to relish the blood-sucking in a way that troubles even Sang-hyeon. But the movie never comes close to tapping the raw, gnawing need of vampirism that fueled pics such as Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction” or Tony Scott’s “The Hunger.”
Song, perhaps South Korea’s most recognizable actor and a Park regular (“JSA,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), is never less than solid as the priest-turned-vampire but lacks some of the sheer physical presence he usually brings to the screen.
The major surprise is 22-year-old actress-model Kim Ok-vin (usually known, more correctly, as Kim Ok-bin), whose doll-like features made her the perfect underdog in the campy high school musical “Dasepo Naughty Girls.” Here, she puts to rest any doubts about her ability to take on a challenging role, throwing herself into topless sex scenes and vampiric munching with a lusty, bad-girl abandon.
As usual in Park’s movies, design is paramount, with Jeong Jeong-hun’s DV-originated lensing savoring the musty Lynchian colors of Ryu Seong-hye’s production design. Visual effects, especially in the flying scenes, are just OK by Korean standards.