As I have mentioned many times before, the number of crime thrillers Korea is producing per year is really overwhelming. In an effort to stand out from the plethora of productions of the category, filmmakers strive to present something different, particularly regarding the narrative. Lee Kyoung-mi succeeded impressively in her effort at "The Truth Beneath", so let us see how Byun Sung-Hyun fared.
The labyrinth-like story begins with Han Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), the "leader" of a prison, meeting a new inmate, Jo Hyeon-soo (Im Si-wan), who impresses him with his fighting abilities and his cockiness. Han recruits the young man, with the latter becoming one of his most faithful henchmen, even standing by him when he loses the throne from a bigger gangster than he is. The two of them continue their collaboration outside of the prison, with Han bringing the young man into his syndicate. The organization is headed by Go Byeong-cheol (Lee Kyung-young) who runs fishing company as a front to smuggle drugs in cooperation with the Russians. Soon, a number of truths are revealed. Jo is actually an undercover cop, whose loyalties are jeopardized the more he hangs out with Han, whose boss fears his rising power and actually wants to kill him. And this is only the beginning in a spiral of treacheries, switching loyalties, and secrets that threaten everyone.
The fact is that Byun Sung-Hyun penned and directed an elaborate story, which retains the agony for the whole 120 minutes of the film, with a number of shuttering plot twists, which are presented in very timely fashion. However, the timeline, with the almost constant flashbacks, makes the narrative unnecessary complicated, and the film a bit difficult to follow. Furthermore, I felt that the story went a bit overboard in a number of instances, particularly during the ending, although this aspect actually fits the general aesthetics, which are not based on realism, but on entertainment.
In that fashion, the movie features impressive fighting scenes, in a fitting brawler style, humor in the most unexpected moments, a rock-like soundtrack, much violence, and an obvious effort to draw from Im Si-wan's impressive looks, all in accordance to the rules of mainstream films. The slapping/fist fight in the prison and the scene where everybody is laughing are great samples of the aforementioned, and among the most impressive sequences in the film.
Cho Hyoung-rae's cinematography is quite good, with him portraying both the prison and the "underworld" environment in a very suitable, kind of polished darkness. Kim Jae-beom and Kim Sang-beom's editing retains the rather fast pace of the film, although, as I mentioned before, the flashbacks have their faults in the way they are presented.
The acting on the film is on a very high level. Im Si-wan plays the part of the cocky-appearing, but secretly tormented Jo Hyeon-soo quite well, with the scenes where he begins to lose his cool being the highlights of his performance. Lee Kyung-young puts another great, secondary performance as Go Byeong-cheol, while Jeon Hye-jin-II as the woman in charge of Jo's operation is equally good, to say the least. The one who steals the show though, is Sol Kyung-gu as Han Jae-ho, who plays the villain with a combination of attention to detail and gusto, as he emits danger from every pore, particularly when he uses his sociopathic laughter.
"The Merciless" is not a masterpiece, but Byun Sung-Hyun achieved his goal of standing out, at least partially, in his first effort in the genre. If he manages to improve his narrative and limit his imagination a bit, he could eventually become one of the greats, because his first sample is more than encouraging.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Guest Film Review] "The Merciless""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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