Korean blockbuster director Kwak Kyung Taek, responsible for hits such as “Friend” and “Typhoon” returns with something a little different in “Pain”, his first film in three years. Far more of a melodrama than his previous outings, the film still sees Kwak working in his usual tortured macho themes through the rather odd romantic pairing of a man who can’t feel pain and a fragile haemophiliac woman. Based on an original story by manhwa artist Kang Pool, many of whose other works have previously made it to the screen, including “Apartment”, “Hello, Schoolgirl”, and “Ba:bo”, the film has an impressive pair of popular leads in actor Kwon Sang Woo (“71 – Into the Fire”) and Jeong Ryeo Won (“In Love and the War”) as the two halves of the unlikely central couple.
Set in Seoul, the film follows Kwon Sang Woo lowly debt collector Nam Soon, who lost the ability to feel pain as a child after a tragic accident which claimed the lives of his family. Now, the unfortunate man makes a living by letting his boss beat the hell out of him in front of clients to try and terrify them into paying up. His work brings him into contact with broke and downtrodden market seller Dong Hyun (Jung Ryeo Won), who suffers from a condition nearly the opposite of his own, with her being a severe haemophiliac at serious risk from even the slightest injury. When it becomes clear that she is unable to repay her debt, Nam Soon lets her move in with him, and the two slowly warm to each other, finding love for the first time in their lives. Sadly, though inevitably, things don’t run smoothly, with her health worsening and his work pushing him closer and closer to danger.
Although the premise of “Pain” may sound a little daft or contrived, and perhaps more in-keeping with some of Kang Pool’s less serious manhwa comics, Kwak Kyung Taek does a determined job of making good use of it. This is certainly hammered home through the film’s depiction of Nam Soon going about his daily job, which inevitably seems to involve him being slapped around, having bottles smashed over his head or his hands crushed with bricks. Whilst this is never particularly believable, the film choosing for the first couple of acts to treat him as not only being immune to pain, but being possessed of near superhero like resilience, it does give things a very different and at times quite bizarre feel, a few scenes of excessive punishment making for (presumably) unintentional laughs. Dong Hyun is similarly treated in a rather odd manner, at times being close to a wacky romantic comedy heroine, and at others a delicate lost soul type, and this too adds to the film coming across as a bit uncertain of tone.
This is also seen in a plot which is often unfocused and prone to meanderings, and in the fact that the film is frequently bloody and violent, as if being unable to decide whether or not it wants to be a hard edged crime drama or a sort of illness themed sad-eyed romance. Although this might not sound ideal for a film with dramatic intent, it actually works quite well, and stops things from ever getting too heavy handed or moody, as well as helping to distract from what is essentially a very familiar tale despite its leftfield trappings. This eccentricity makes the film much more entertaining than it might otherwise have been, and its moments of silliness are definitely preferable to the po-faced, over the top angst usually seen in Korean melodramas.
Also in the film’s favour are the solid performances from Kwon Sang Woo and Jung Ryeo Won, who both add a crucial likeability to their characters. This adds welcome depth to their bonding, and the film’s central relationship is generally a strong one, drawing upon their shared status as bruised outsiders rather than the gimmicky use of their conditions. Things do get quite moving as a result, and although not really the meaningful tearjerker that Kwak’s occasionally mock-artistic direction seems to think it is, the film has a good number of effectively emotional scenes.
“Pain” is certainly an interesting film, and one more entertaining and engaging than most other recent Korean melodramas or illness themed efforts, thanks in part to the offbeat handling of its faintly silly premise. Quirky enough to stand out from the crowd and offering a respectable amount of convincing sentimentality, it should be enjoyed by fans of the form or the stars, or perhaps viewers looking for something a little different.
Kyung-Taek Kwak (director) / Pool Kang (screenplay)
CAST: Sang-woo Kwone … Nam-soon
Ryeo-won Jeong … Dong-hyeon
Dong-seok Ma … Beom-no