“Thirst” is the story of a well-intentioned Catholic priest who volunteers as a subject for an experimental vaccine against a deadly virus, miraculously survives the procedure, but comes out of it a vampire. That kind of side effect is hard to predict.
What’s less surprising is that the film is the work of Park Chan-wook, South Korea’s most prominent master of the macabre. His “Oldboy” (the middle part of a “vengeance trilogy”) introduced him to American audiences, but his work before (notably “Joint Security Area”) and since has always been meticulously shot and often unnervingly creepy. No wonder Quentin Tarantino considers him an idol: They both make gruesome violence look beautiful.
The priest, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), is one of those morally conflicted vampires so common nowadays, unwilling to victimize people to satisfy his required daily intake of blood. His ecclesiastical access to hospitals makes it easy to suck down a pint here and there from unwitting patients’ IV tubes. There’s one of Park’s trademark eerie images right there: Sang-hyun lying on the floor beneath a hospital bed, intently suckling away while the comatose patient slumbers in silence.
Sang-hyun encounters a childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), now an adult, at least chronologically, who lives with his imperious mother, Madame Ra (Kim Hae-sook), and his wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). Kang-woo is lazy and juvenile, and poor Tae-ju — who grew up as his adopted stepsister — must wait hand and foot on him and his mother. Like Cinderella, Tae-ju longs to escape this drudgery, and Sang-hyun may be able to provide the means by which she can do so.
And now I clam up, lest I drain the film’s life force by spoiling its surprises. Like most of Park’s surprises, they are chilling and morbidly funny. But “Thirst,” while brimming with crisp, stylish coolness and some unsettling images, doesn’t have much of an emotional center — it is perhaps too cool in that regard — and its 133-minute running time dilutes some of the power of the eye-poppingly weird story. Then again, a tale this twisted is still a mighty thing to behold, even diluted.
B (2 hrs., 13 min.; Korean with subtitles; )