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Giving vampires a fresh new look

When Park Chan-wook set out to make his vampire movie “Thirst,” he wanted to leave out the garlic cloves, opera capes, wooden stakes and other moldy genre stereotypes. Neither did he intend to add to the current glut of angsty-teen, blood-sucking fables with gorgeously buff heroes and heroines, such as “Twilight” and “True Blood.”

“In the West, there has been this great accumulation of cliches in vampire movies,” the South Korean writer-director said by phone, speaking through an interpreter. “So just by taking these cliches out, I thought I could come up with something unique.”

If for no other reason, “Thirst” should be remembered as apparently the first vampire flick in which the protagonist is an Asian Roman Catholic priest who actually feels guilty for his plasma-slurping ways. Played by leading Korean actor Song Kang-ho, this modest man of the cloth accidentally becomes a sensualistic nocturnal predator when he nobly volunteers for a vaccine experiment that’s intended to curb a deadly virus.

Instead, he receives an infectious transfusion and before long is preying as devoutly as he’s praying. The movie opens in theaters Friday.

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In his previous movies, which include the Korean box-office smash “Joint Security Area” and “Old Boy,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes festival, Park, 45, has demonstrated a technical finesse that puts some critics in mind of David Fincher as well as an ability to glean fresh imagery and metaphorical meaning from Western film genres and storytelling conventions.

Curiously, “Thirst,” which shared the Jury Prize with the British film “Fish Tank” at Cannes this year, was partly inspired by French writer Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin,” about a young woman who enters into a feverish affair to escape from a soulless marriage and stifling domesticity. In “Thirst,” the beautiful actor Kim Ok-vin plays a similarly trapped young woman, whose charms attract Song’s priestly Nosferatu.

Park said he admired the way that Zola’s novel “deals with love not just as a concept” but as an everyday reality of earth-bound, fleshly attraction. With “Thirst,” Park similarly wanted to strip away some of the hoary Transylvanian mystique and mysticism and “deal with vampirism as something almost biological, or treat it as a disease.” The movie’s mainly drab settings of hospitals, lonely streets and cheerless homes -- as opposed to the glamorous, Gothic mise-en-scene of so many Western vampire films -- also lends “Thirst” a naturalistic quality that makes its surreal happenings all the more alarming and, occasionally humorous (as when an irate vampire casually strikes a lamppost, which then crumples in half).

Although no one in “Thirst” wields a cross as a vampire repellent, the movie’s Catholic spiritual subtext is no accident. The son of academic parents, Park grew up as a Roman Catholic, until in puberty he reached the conclusion that “there was no foundation in which to believe in the existence of God.”

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Though his religious upbringing helped shape his youthful worldview, Park said, “If someone wanted to say that Catholicism had as great an influence on me as it had on Martin Scorsese, it would be a great exaggeration.” What stuck with him most, he said, was the Catholic notion of original sin and unexpiated guilt and the dazzlingly ornate traditions of Catholic religious art.

In “Thirst,” he said, he wanted to consider Catholicism and vampirism as fundamentally Western concepts that have been imported into Korean culture, like foreign agents introduced into a human body. “So this film deals with external elements entering into a new environment.” Tension builds in “Thirst” over whether those external elements ultimately will be accepted or rejected, whether they’ll be assimilated or end up destroying their hosts.

Drawing a parallel, the director suggested that he infiltrates movie-making and story-telling conventions and infects them with new variations and ideas. “You could almost say I’m the germ that has entered into the genre and is messing everything up,” he said.

Few directors are more inviting targets for fanboy worship and movie critics’ ridicule than those who make pulp-genre movies with loftier philosophical aspirations. Yet Park’s metaphysical bent (he studied aesthetics and philosophy in college) should come as no surprise to careful students of his films.

His penchant for blood and a handful of high-voltage sequences (including the notorious “Old Boy” scene in which the main character, after being released from prison, goes to a restaurant and sinks his teeth into a live squid) have caused some reviewers to dismiss him as an exploitation auteur, a stylish but gruesome Tarantino wannabe.

But closer examination of Park’s work reveals his preoccupation not only with constructing beautifully composed images of aestheticized violence, a la Sam Peckinpah, but also with moral concerns that center on issues of free will, revenge and self-restraint. Like a number of characters in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, whose masterpiece “Vertigo” played a decisive role in making Park deviate from his planned career as an art critic, Park’s characters tend to be disoriented people trapped in extreme circumstances not of their own making, who must then commit to irreversible courses of action that threaten to bring about their own destruction.

For example, in “Old Boy” (2003), the second installment of Park’s so-called Vengeance Trilogy, the protagonist is being released from prison after being held for 15 years for reasons he doesn’t know. This Kafka-esque premise sets up a tale of revenge and psychological manipulation that also could be interpreted as an allegory of the relation between a godlike director and his long-suffering actors, a theme that Park also investigated in “Cut,” his contribution to the 2004 directorial collaboration “Three . . . Extremes.”

Park said his fondness for claustrophobic, prison-like settings in his films stems from their ability to purify and streamline the ideas he’s dealing with. By reducing his movies to a limited number of variables, he said, he can construct microcosms, contained universes, where human behavior is intensified.

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And if that behavior often is unsettling and his characters’ circumstances are unnerving, Park suggested that’s because they’re not as unusual as we may wish to believe. He describes the imprisoned character in “Old Boy,” who doesn’t know why he’s being held or when (if ever) he’ll be released, as “a metaphor for a fundamental human condition.”

“We humans don’t know why we are here,” Park said, “or when, as it were, we are going to get out of this world.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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