What motivates acts of betrayal and revenge, two of cinema’s favourite subjects that have been characterised in popular culture in various ways? There is no direct answer to that, but it seems like the attempts to illustrate them as destructive powers had worked out sufficiently thus far. The theme of revenge became somewhat of a speciality of the contemporary South Korean cinema, a genre also called Korean Noir, where a dark, ruthless and cruel world of criminals, including corrupted law officials, frequently dominates the big screen. The Merciless, which was shown also in ‘Official Selection – Out of Competition’ of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was written and directed by Byun Sung-hyun, does not bring anything fresh (narrative-wise) to the genre itself, but it presents one imposing thing for sure: a good assemble of actors, including the veteran Sol Kyung-goo (Memoir of a Murderer, The Long Way Home, Hope) and Im Si-wan (One-Line, A Melody To Remember), a K-Pop idol-turned-actor.
Busan. Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-goo) and Hyun-soo (Im Si-wan) meet in prison and quite quickly build a peculiar and complicated fellowship. Jae-ho is an ambitious, brutal, ageing gangster, who works for an arrogant number one mobster Ko Byung-Chul (Lee Kyoung-Young: New Trail, Inside Man); Hyun-soo is a youngster with a big mouth, who has secrets of his own. Sol Kyung-goo as the bold villain shines throughout the film, while Im Si-wan successfully proves that he is more than just a pretty face with a voice – his performance is worth paying attention to; it is emotional, sincere and vivid.
While in prison, Jae-ho and Hyun-soo protect each other whilst having their own agenda against one another. The Merciless looks like a complex film, but it is not. It moves quickly from one scene to another, blending past with the present and thus gradually uncovers personas of both criminals. Simultaneously, it also confuses the audience with its slightly topsy-turvy narrative. There are some twists and turns with regards to betrayal and loyalty, but there is nothing to analyze on the psychological level. When it comes to the characters, there is a lack of depth for the protagonists, with no backstory provided and with not much explanation as to why they are the way they are.
First and foremost, The Merciless showcases the latest trend of hyper-realistic violence, including well-choreographed fight scenes. Without a doubt, this is a technically well-woven production; the steady camera work by Jo Hyung-rae is sound, the eye-level shots are captured in all the right moments, and they successfully emphasize different parts of the film, especially the confrontations between Jae-ho and Hyun-soo.
Byun Sung-hyun has departed from his previous, light narratives – My P.S. Partner, a romantic-comedy, and The Beat Goes On, a drama – with an inspired attempt at making a crime thriller. However, the film slightly falls flat when it comes to originality, simply because there are various productions out there that tackle the same ‘prison’ theme: The Prison, A Violent Prosecutor or Gangnam Blues. But even with the lack of inventiveness, The Merciless can bring some pride and joy to the emerging filmmaker and might attract a decent number of viewers – the performances by Sol Kyung-goo and Im Si-wan are exceptional.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © CJ Entertainment