You can think of it as the Korean equivalent of those "real teenager" movies for which Larry Clark and Harmony Korine became infamous (Kids, Gummo, Ken Park).
We begin with a party at which the most charming thing Tae-gyu Bong says is, "You bitches, aren't you here to fuck?" He then starts punching them when they won't take their clothes off. He makes them line up naked on a table. "All bitches want it," he explains, "although they pretend they don't." The only words that could begin to describe this monster are the ones that come out of his mouth. He's unbelievable, but just saying that doesn't communicate the horror. This is the kind of man that makes you want to resign from the human race.
A conversation between Tae-gyu Bong and his friend Jun Han:
"Just some bitch. I did her at one of those rape parties, yet the bitch still wants me. She wants me to move in with her."
"She still wants you?"
"That's right. Bitches are all like that."
The freakiest bit though is that we'll end up empathising with Tae-gyu Bong. A bit. I won't say "like", but he becomes one of our four protagonists and come to understand him. Besides, it's one thing merely to behave like that, but another to choose to be his girlfriend (Eun-ji Jo). Can you say "damaged"? Eun-ji Jo works as a sort of prostitute, sometimes on Tae-gyu Bong's orders. There's a blackly funny bit later where he says "sorry for making you fuck that old prick for money" and Eun-ji Jo is surprised that he's said something so nice.
The other main characters are Geun-yeong Park, who "doesn't do the dirty thing", and Ji-ru Sung, the proprietor of the bar where the girls work. This is the kind of bar where the customers complain if they haven't had a sexual experience and where Sung is capable of locking the doors and beating people up.
Did I mention that this film was Korean?
In fairness though, it's not just any old Korean film. It's the second film of Sang-soo Im, who's controversial even by Korean standards and whose two most recent films (The Taste of Money, The Housemaid) were invited to compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. All of his films have drawn hostile comment, but he managed to get his film sued and nearly four minutes' footage censored in 2005 with The President's Last Bang. That one's apparently a black comedy about the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee, who'd started out in 1961 by seizing power in a coup d'etat.
Tears thus isn't his most extreme film, surprising though this may seem. His debut, Girls' Night Out, got violently mixed reviews. Tears apparently didn't do well at the box office (gee, no kidding), but Sang-soo Im has heard that it was popular with many teenagers.
It's real. Sang-soo Im spent five months in the Garibong-dong district of Seoul amongst homeless teenagers as research before he wrote the script, then he shot it with first-time actors. (The imdb reckons that Jun Han and Eun-ji Jo had acted together in a 1998 short film that's also called Nunmul, though.) Some have since gone on to other acting work. Some of the cast project more emotion than others, but they all feel real in their roles. It's just that some of them are withdrawn and don't reveal themselves to the outside world. That's the way they are. Sang-soo Im handles his cast well and captures what he was aiming for.
The adults are evil. Every one of our protagonists has an abusive parent, which casts new light on The Scene Where Tae-gyu Bong Does Something Nice. They're at a restaurant. The proprietor is hitting her little daughter. Tae-gyu Bong doesn't take it well.
There's nudity and sexual content, obviously, but not that much on-screen action. We don't see Tae-gyu Bong's rapes, or indeed what he does with the girls who sleep with him voluntarily. Jun Han and Geun-yeong Park have an unusual kind of slow-motion sexual evolution, though, as the latter has serious issues that she's dealing with. These aren't like normal sex scenes. There's nothing Hollywood about them. You can believe that this is what would happen between a virgin and someone who wants to go further but has emotional problems. To quote the director: "Yes, that is my tactic. I do not do anything special; I just try to make it real. Because maybe we do these things every day, but when we see the real thing we are shocked."
Would I recommend this film? Well, it's certainly not fun. It's unpleasant and often sordid, such as the scenes where the characters are sniffing gas. It also has a finale that manages to be shocking in a way we hadn't seen yet in the movie. It's a strong entry in an uncomfortable genre. (Note to self: watch the Brazilian film Pixote.) It'll also break your brain if you start thinking about how much it makes you empathise with a serial rapist.