Immortal Beloved

07/29/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by Park Chan-wook

God knows that now, more than ever, we need another vampire movie. But seriously — we could use a good one. And thus far, the recent American contributions to the genre have been deficient; ever sex-obsessed, our culture’s vampire narratives have run the gamut of carnal extremes, from chaste pre-teen fantasies to cheesy oversexed soap operas. It takes foreigners to lay bare the inherent romanticism of the vampire picture — the sensitivity; hitherto, Let the Right One In, the Swedish adolescence-allegory, has been the only laudable entry into the Neo-Vampire canon. But now we can add the Korean Thirst to this (finally) growing list. Director Park Chan-wook’s coup is to toggle between playing his vampirism for laughs and using it to tease out an operatic, Sweeney Todd-level of tragedy. It’s not a great vampire story; it’s a deliciously overblown and strangely moving love story. About vampires.

A goody-goody priest (Song Kang-ho) volunteers to test a cure for a particularly deadly disease; he nearly dies, but is saved by an accidental transfusion of vampire blood, and he abandons his frock for the flesh, developing a lust not only for blood but for babes, namely the little sister of a childhood friend, played by Kim Ok-vin. It’s like a transfusion of sin, especially since the sex is so violent: he wants to taste blood. (The ecstasy in pain, the simple sadism, is more True Blood than Twilight; while we’re at it, Thirst is also more The Crime of Father Amaro than The Bells of St. Mary’s, with shades of Double Indemnity, A Place in the Sun and Little Shop of Horrors.) The hot sex is also kind of silly, or, kinky; our inexperienced priest, a kissing virgin before his transformation, spends a lot of time sucking on toes and licking armpits.

These kinds of jokes, along with the fart gags (a mother who smells her grown son’s gas for diagnostic purposes) and the streams of blood, seem to indicate that teenagers are the intended audience, and that makes sense if the vampire transformation is meant as an allegory for puberty (sans the understanding and age-appropriate casting of its Scandinavian predecessor). But it’s not-not really; the film is full of possible lines of allegory that Park doesn’t pursue: the addiction to liquids evokes alcoholism; the enviable superpowers make vampirism seem like being a Spiderman. There’s a cheap dig at the Catholic Church in there, with a priest literally feeding off of the infirm. And early scenes recall the early days of the AIDS crisis.

But these allegories don’t carry because the criticism most often leveled at Park (Oldboy, Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance) happens to be true: he’s a virtuosic but vacuous visualist; his shots are more about how they look (pretty!) than what they mean (little!). But here that isn’t exactly a problem because, though the carefully composed compositions may not support any subtext, they do bolster the movie’s primal love story; Song and Kim’s raunchy romance devolves into a surreal domestic drama as they bicker over how to score more blood, suck their friends’ veins dry, or toss one another around in domestic disputes (whose violence reaches the level of that between Talia Shire and her husband in The Godfather), all set against a blindingly white painted backdrop — ripe for red-streaking bloodspills. Balancing histrionics and melodramatics with bone-crunching, Raimi-esque gross-out comedy, Park fashions something we haven’t seen a lot of lately, despite all the recent ballyhoo over the hematophagous undead: solid vampire fiction, in all its sad, sexy, pretty, messy glory.

Opens July 31