Psychically devastating bullying and its corollary -- exquisite revenge -- are not uncommon to current trends in the horror film, and South Korea has produced its fair share of this genre stripe (notably Park Chan-Wook's acclaimed vengeance trilogy). Aiming for something more viscerally complex is "A Bloody Aria," writer/director Won Shin-yun's arty thriller about a fated convergence of people from different strata of Korean society who queasily slide between roles of tormentor and victim.
Leading us into Won's comically grim "Deliverance"-meets-Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" construct is a luxury car driven into the mountains by an entitled opera professor (Lee Byuong-jun) who ignores red lights with impunity and has unwholesome designs on his attractive young soprano student (Cha Ye-ryun) in the passenger seat. The student barely escapes his sloppy sexual assault by running into the woods, but separately they become hostages to members of a crazed band of rural thugs who force them to participate in a cruel series of mental psych-outs and violent confrontations.
But where the torture in "Funny Games" seemed existential and accusatory toward the audience, Won sees larger connections in seemingly random brutality: There's the grimy bird-killer (Oh Dal-Su) who had been mistreated in the military, while the gang leader (Lee Mun-shik) boasts a calmly creepy smile that hides a scarred memory of high school abuse. And when Won has a character sing the country's national anthem, it's not intended as a point of pride.
As twisty secrets emerge, the hard work Won put into creating an atmosphere of ticking dread and potent visual metaphor all too easily collapses into obviousness about notions of power and retribution. But for the most part "A Bloody Aria" has an adept way of muddying these themes for audiences expecting the usual gore-thirsty trip.
"A Bloody Aria." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. In Korean with English subtitles. Exclusively at the ImaginAsian Center, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles (213) 617-1033.