Korean Film Festival 2017 Review: The Merciless (South Korea, 2016)

A slick, noir-style gangster film is no stranger to the Korean movie industry. Critically acclaimed Korean films in this genre such as A Bittersweet Life have garnered worldwide recognition. One of the latest offerings showcased at KOFFIA 2017 is The Merciless (불한당:나쁜 놈들의 세상).

The movie revolves around a ruthless criminal Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) who seemingly stops at nothing to become the top dog in his crime organisation and his young protégé, Hyun-su (Im Si-Hwan). The short prologue opens with two junior henchmen discussing Jae-ho’s ability to kill with his eyes wide open as they sit around a table laden with seafood; the camera pans in on their dead, gaping eyes staring upwards to drive the metaphor home.

Locked up in prison for his crimes, Jae-ho meets a young, reticent young man Hyun-su who seems unassuming on the surface but harbours seemingly similar ambitions to conquer the crime organisation’s ladder to the top. After Hyun-su saves Jae-ho’s life from a fellow inmate, he gains Jae-ho’s trust to navigate the underworld together after their release from prison.

Amongst other petty crimes, the crime organisation’s source of income is revealed to come from smuggling cocaine from the Russian mafia. It is a merry-go- round of Russian roulette as Jae-ho and Hyun-su work together to overthrow the mob boss, Chairman Ko Byung-chul (Lee Kyoung-Young) while at the same time, Jae-ho plots to get rid of his protégé with the Chairman’s nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-Won). Things get even more complicated when Chairman Ko tries to dismiss Jae-ho as his right-hand man. Hot on their tails is tenacious police chief Cheon In-sook (Jeon Hye-Jin), who sets an undercover plan in motion to take down the crime organisation.

The timeline does not flow chronologically as we shuttle between prison and life after Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s sentences. Early on in the movie before the relationship between the duo is established, we are treated to an extravagant scene of Jae-ho welcoming Hyun-su to life outside prison by parading a row of flashy red Ferraris and an even flashier red-clad Russian escort.

The convoluted plot is slowly peeled back to reveal multiple layers as we weave through different timelines; the array of characters have different motives to facilitate double- crossing and even triple crossings à la Internal Affairs. Secrets lurk beneath the surface and tremulous alliances are set up. ”Trust no one, trust only the circumstances” is Jae-ho’s rather apt reiteration throughout the movie.

As each plot twist is slowly teased out to reveal the big picture, the line between the upright world of righteous cops and shady underworld of gangster mobs becomes increasingly blurred. Throughout the 117 minute run, the tension is palatably heightened as tables turn in a blink of an eye. The role of protagonist and antagonist is blended into each other as each character is morally ambiguous.

Sol Kyung-gu played the austere gangster to the tilt while allowing moments of vulnerability to seep through the chinks of his armour, particularly when interacting with Im Si-hwan’s Hye-su. The duo’s on-screen sizzling chemistry grounds the movie with genuine, heartfelt emotions to balance out the non-stop action. Im proved to be much more than a pretty face (“Even your bruises are pretty,” Jae-ho says) as he put in a solid and convincing performance. Although it is a deviation from the normal clean cut characters he plays (Misaeng, A Melody to Remember), his quiet intensity and charisma shines through in The Merciless.

Helmed by Jung Byung-gil, his deft directing touch is apparent in the dark, polished cinematography and technically excellent stunts in action scenes. The two different
timelines are effortlessly differentiated by their colour palette. Jung depicts life inside prison as dark and gritty and life outside prison more vibrant and exuberant. Whether it is a sweeping scene of thirty men in a brawl or a long, tracking shot in a bar, the camerawork is outstanding.

The Merciless offers nothing new to the table plot-wise, but it is undeniably a well-directed, visually stunning movie with strong acting neatly packaged into a slick and glossy crime film.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Merciless is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. It will be screening in Brisbane on 9 September, Darwin on 22 September and Hobart on 23 September. For more information visit www.koffia.com.au.