Korea again, and a movie I would have probably not even looked at if I had not been so impressed by the comic turn of Jeong Ryeo-won in the utterly fantastic “History of the Salaryman” Korean Drama I have been completely addicted to recently (I will try and write something up about that soon). However, this one is certainly not comic, and turns out to be something rather interesting, and belies the high-concept idea at the core of the movie.
In “Pain” Nam-soon (Kwone Sang-woo) works as a debt collector. He was involved in a car crash at a young age, which not only left him an orphan, but also left him totally insensitive to pain. What this means is that he works with his partner, basically scaring them into paying by his colleague beating seven bells of snot out of him to intimidate the late payees. But his insensitivity runs even deeper – he also has no sense of taste, and is frankly emotionally sterile – he blames the car crash on himself, and carries the ghosts of his dead family deep inside (even going to the point of using his sisters name instead of his own). One collection brings him into contact with Dong-hyeon (Jeong Ryeo-won), who is equally alone in the world (and has inherited her Father’s debts), but suffers from Haemophilia, which renders her totally open to injury. Unlike Nam-soon, she is very much a creature of emotion. Nam-soon initially takes some pity on her (as he is not as heartless as he likes to make out, he also uses his talents to help those having their livelihoods threatened by unscrupulous Landlords). This pity eventually leads him to allowing her to stay in his apartment, and eventually a romance blossoms between the two. Unfortunately, Dong-hyeon’s condition worsens, and it has a devastating impact on their relationship. Will there be a happy ending? Or is this a film based in Korea? I think we all know the answer, but the most important thing is… how was the journey?
At the core, the film has a very high concept idea – about a romance between a guy who cannot feel pain, and a girl who is potentially hyper-sensitive to it. The problem is, their diseases are not really as diametrically opposite as the pitch suggests. In fact, it really struggles to bring Dong-hyeon’s Haemophilia into play – the root of her issue is that her blood cannot clot on its own, and frankly she is self-medicating. When her illness becomes critical, it is more that she has come down with a bout of pneumonia (which would be more an issue with her white blood cells, rather than a clotting issue). It is a technical nit-pick, but shows something at the core of the film that is not just right.
However, ignoring this and it actually works quite well. Nam-soon is an interesting character, full of nuance, and played well by Kwone Sang-woo. Even better is the fragile yet feisty Jeong Ryeo-won, who displays a vast range of skills – bringing a believability to the script. Their romance is gradual, and does not seem at all unlikely – the problem is that it takes far too long to really hit its stride, and the actual time they spend together as a couple is just too brief. This means that when the crisis point happens, the raw emotion on display is not quite earned. I don’t think one bout of love-making and a couple of deep chats quite deserve the sacrifices they both end up making.
Even more confusing is a little subplot, where Nam-soon’s colleague is forced to work for one of these Landlords in order to pay off his own wife’s debt (oh the irony!). It seems to flit in and out of the film, and whilst it leads to the eventual fatal conclusion, I never really got the sense whether they were actually good friends, or if Nam-soon was being used. It just felt a little unnecessary and took up far too much screen time. On the other hand, there are lots of really fun moments, it actually works best when it uses light comedic moments – like Nam-soon’s career as a stuntman, or the meeting outside some station lockers that finally show Dong-hyeon accepting his help.
It is put together in as classy a manner as any Korean film, and should stand up with Director Kwak Kyung-Taek’s other more lauded works (Such as “Typhoon” and “Friend”) if only to show he can direct a strong female character to go with his altogether more masculine oeuvre. But in terms of taking such a premise, I do wonder how it would have turned out if someone more adept at taking such situations and fleshing them out, such as Kim Ki-duk would have made for a more fleshed out character piece. The final conclusion seemed somewhat rushed, and whilst I will give it many bonus points for no going to the normal routine for a “Fatal Beauty” picture, I felt that people had not learned from their experiences, nor was any kind of Karmic balance struck.
In the final analysis though, for me this was a film that exceeded expectations in terms of a potentially hokey premise, but fell a little short of being as exceptional as it could have been. The performances are excellent, and there are moments of class sprinkled throughout. But the clumsiness of trying to make the core idea work, and the poor pacing means that it ends up with a mild recommendation.