Trailed as a kind of Korean “Kids,” but in fact very different in feel and mood, “Tears” is a sad, funny and sexually forthright look at a group of four underage teens in Seoul’s underbelly. DV-shot second feature by Im Sang-soo (“Girls’ Night Out”) doesn’t fall prey to the excesses of either the digital medium or the subject matter, constructing a small gallery of involving characters, terrifically played by first-timers. Familiarity of the subject matter may hinder its progress in the West, but this deserves a spin at some major fests.
Just as “Girls’ Night Out” pushed the local envelope on censorship with its frank sex-talk, so “Tears,” two years later, takes the portrayal of underage screen sex to a new threshold (though the actors are, in fact, older than the roles they play).
Pic has very little actual nudity, but a couple of sex scenes between the two leads are extremely realistic (and all the more erotic), and the film’s refusal to take a judgmental stand on the kids’ activities may raise some moral guardians’ hackles. Despite fears to the contrary, movie has been passed uncut by the local censor.
An opening sequence, showing a group partying in a bar and the boys getting the girls to strip, raises fears with its handheld camerawork and general grossness that the movie is going to be another exercise in DV indulgence. In fact, it’s atypical of the rest of the film, which settles down into a conventionally shot indie feature as one of the group, Han (Han Jun), helps a girl, Sa-ri (Park Geun-yeong), escape through a bathroom window.
Han is different from his other male pals. Living quite comfortably with his mother, and quiet and withdrawn, he’s almost feminine in comparison with his macho mate, Jang (Bong Tae-gyu), a strutting show-off with blonded hair whose g.f., Ran (Jo Eun-ji), is a likable ditz with braided locks.
Han starts a cautious friendship with the unsmiling Sa-ri who, despite her neat looks and cool demeanor, is as tough as they come. Defiantly independent and harsh-mouthed, she’s clearly taken a liking to Han, though when the two sniff gas together, half-naked in a cupboard, she makes it clear she doesn’t like being touched “down there.”
Still, Sa-ri asks Han to move in with her and, in a remarkable sequence, she partly lowers the platonic boom in their relationship. In a long, absolutely natural scene, which tingles with erotic electricity, she starts to feel him up as they lie side by side in bed one night but draws the line at actual intercourse. (Scene is paralleled later on in the movie by a reverse sequence, of equal oomph, in which she asks him to return the favor.)
Sa-ri and Ran work alongside other girls in a small hostess bar run by the gangsterish Yong-ho (Sung Ji-ru), who’s frequently violent toward them. When Ran ends up in hospital after a savage beating, Sa-ri, who’s earlier shown she’s not afraid of Yong-ho, privately marks the boss for an eventual comeuppance.
Film has only a minimal plot and largely spins on the relationship between Han, a middle-class rebel, and Sa-ri, a genuine piece of social flotsam who’s already moved beyond pain. Thanks partly to fine casting, led by Park as Sa-ri and Bong as the showier Jang, Im manages to sustain interest in the kids through a blend of moods and sharply drawn characters rather than through any down-and-dirty minutiae of their lifestyle.
One late-on sequence, where Han nervously introduces Sa-ri to his parents, with comically unexpected results, typifies the movie’s fresh approach to familiar material.
Visually, “Tears” gains little by being shot on DV, as Im shoots and edits in a filmic way; however, the more informal technology was, apparently, a help in drawing performances from his young cast. Transfer to 35mm is good, though pic retains a video-shot look. Film captures the atmosphere of Seoul’s Garibong-dong district (a favored area for stray teenagers) with unforced naturalism.