London Korean Film Festival: The Merciless

The Merciless
The Merciless
Directed by Byun Sung-hyun
Starring Sul Kyung-gu and Yim Si-wan
Screening at LKFF November 3rd, 2017

by Richard Hamer

Released from prison after a three-year stint, up-and-coming gangster Hyun-soo joins forces with Jae-hoo, an established figure in the Busan underworld, to make the kind of money they spent their years inside dreaming about. But things are not what they seem, and as they set about organising their ‘Big Score’, it’s clear that one – or both – has a hidden agenda. As events unfold, we repeatedly flashback to prison, where their relationship was born. As their true motives are revealed in the past, you’re forced to re-examine the events of the present. Who is everyone working for? What do they really want?

The Merciless is by no means original in its time-jumping, plot-twisting conceit, but it pulls it off with aplomb. Right until the final frame, you don’t trust what anyone says, or believe they’re working for who they say they are; every lie seems like a cover for another, greater lie. The fewer details you know about the plot going in, the better: While The Merciless is for the most part a fairly standard rendition of gangster clichés, the sheer frequency with which it pulls the rug of understanding out from under you is a thing to enjoy unspoilt.

What really elevates The Merciless is the tenderness at the heart of its story. While its constant games of cross and double-cross suggest a thriller in the Infernal Affairs mould, in reality, this is more of a tragedy: Jae-hoo and Hyun-soo show true affection for each other; palpably affected by the burden of living in a world where nobody can be trusted. For all the violent thuggery, drug deals and murder that make up their lives, it’s the fact that it’s so difficult to just be friends with somebody that hurts the most. There’s ample subtext to suggest that there’s more going on than simple friendship, that they are in love, and that – more than anything else – The Merciless is a story of ill-fated romance.

But too much of what makes The Merciless memorable arrives too late, in a fantastic final third to what is otherwise a slickly predictable genre thriller, hailing from a country that produces something just like it about once a month. This is a good movie, boasting a finely textured performance from the brilliant Sol Kyung-gu, with some satisfying fights and a great ending, but strangely it’s just not enough. Viewed as part of a wider Festival with a special focus on crime and noir, you’re reminded just how good Korean cinema can be at this stuff. So, if The Merciless feels somewhat lacking, it’s only because others have raised a very high bar around it.


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