Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Lu over the wall posterComing of age dramas are the mainstay of anime, but if anyone was going to take one in a pleasingly new direction it would be Masaaki Yuasa. His second release of 2017 following the comparatively more abstract The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた, Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta) is the tale of a boy learning to break of out his emotional repression in order to step into a healthier adulthood but it’s also one of learning to live with loss and grief. From the Irish selkie to the conventional mermaid, people of the sea have more often than not stood in for people from a land of lost things where souls are carried away and lonely sailors lured to their doom, but perhaps we’ve simply misunderstood them and the song they sing isn’t intended to make us sad but only to make us remember the joy of living.

Sullen teenager Kai (Shota Shimoda) is in his last year of middle school with a lot of decisions awaiting him as to the further direction of his life. For the moment, Kai lives in the small fishing village of “Hinashi” somewhere in Southern Japan. “Hinashi” literally means “sunless” and the town is indeed overshadowed by a large cliff which blocks the town from the sun but there’s a more metaphorical kind of gloominess lurking here too. Kai is not the only miserable one, pretty much all of the townspeople once dreamt of escape but have either proved unable to get away from their small town roots, or have tried and failed to make it somewhere else before reluctantly returning, salmon-like, to the place of their births. The only one, it seems, to successfully make it out is Kai’s mum who left the family when Kai was small.

Much to his father’s (Shinichi Shinohara) irritation, Kai’s big dream is music though he’s less than thrilled when bamboozled into joining two other aspiring rockstar teens, Kunio (Soma Saito) and Yuho (Minako Kotobuki), as the third member of “Seirèn” even if it does give him an excuse to explore the generally forbidden territory of Mermaid Island. Whilst there, the trio’s song calls out to a music loving Merfolk girl, Lu (Kanon Tani), who can’t resist joining in and, awkwardly, is a much better lead vocalist than the divaish Yuho.

Lu, a charmingly vibrant toddler-type, is perfectly primed to bring this moribund town back to its sunny old self. Able to conjure her own portable corridors of water to travel over land, Lu tracks down Kai hoping to hear more wonderful music and making childish attempts to communicate through broken Japanese so that she can learn to understand the human world. Lu is not, however, the image most of the townspeople have when they think about Merfolk considering most of the local legends paint them as voraciously carnivorous predators existing only to steal landlubbing souls.

The Merfolk are a perfect metaphor for most of the ills consuming the town – a never seen manifestation of unknown fears. Everyone here has lost someone or something at sea (this is, after all a fishing village) or to the city, or just in themselves in learning to accept reality over the lure of unattainable dreams. Kai’s young and caring if distant father tries to push his son towards the “correct” path of non-stop studying and moral uprightness, but his son is just like teenage him, dreaming musical dreams of escape. It might have all gone wrong for Kai’s dad, but as he’s finally able to admit thanks to the guidance of Lu, he doesn’t regret a minute of it.

Ironically enough, Kai’s name is also the word for shellfish in Japanese, making his grandfather’s (Akira Emoto) frequent lament that the muscles in his dinner won’t open more than a little pointed. Kai is definitively closed off, refusing to even open the letters from his mother and keeping himself aloof at school and at home. Yet he’s not the only one who needs to open up – forced to dance to Lu’s tune (literally) each of the townspeople comes to make peace with those things that are so very hard to say, either letting past traumas float away or deciding to swim away with them.

It is, however, a little uncomfortable when the final resolution takes on a romantic dimension seeing as Lu has been painted as an adorable child with her giant bubbly head, cute high pitched voice, and childishly broken Japanese, not to mention that a secondary plot strand revolves around her father (an anthropomorphised shark/killer whale) who has attempted to shed some prejudices of his own to help his daughter in her desire to make friends with humans. Nevertheless, Yuasa and his scriptwriter Reiko do their best to do justice to all the ills of the town from the corporate greed of the mermaid loving old timer who wants to open a theme park exploiting their image, to the creepy behaviour of Yuho’s governor father, and the ever present themes of loss, guilt, and disappointment. The trio of teens at the centre may have felt themselves trapped in a dead end town, but thanks to Lu they come to realise that they too can jump over the wall and go wherever they want so long as they take the music with them.


Lu Over the Wall is in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th December 2017 courtesy of Anime Ltd.. Find out where it’s screening near you via the official Lu Over the Wall microsite.

Anime Ltd. trailer (Dialogue free)

The Brink (狂獸, Jonathan Li, 2017)

the brink posterDesire makes beasts of us all. Longtime assistant director Jonathan Li makes his feature debut with a waterborne pulp noir which takes on more than a hint of gloomy sea shanty in its musings on sailors, their eternal brotherhoods, and ocean owned souls. The Brink (狂獸) mixes metaphysical drama with the more usual procedural tropes as a wounded, maverick cop chases his prey through hell and high water, refusing to acknowledge that his own “recklessness” is the single cause of the chaos he currently finds himself embroiled in.

The exhilarating opening sequence tracks around a ruined building before finding ruthless cop Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) engaged in a brutal fight with a suspect who later lands right on his police car after careering out of a top floor window. In addition to the death of the suspect, Sai Gau’s recklessness also causes the death of a fellow officer and sees him suspended from the police force after being charged with possible manslaughter. Six months later he’s absolved of guilt, released, and reinstated but clearly not forgiven by his colleagues and superiors who continue to regard him as a liability.

Hair dyed blond, Sai Gau sets about investigating a notorious gold smuggling operation operating under the cover of the local fishing trade. Meanwhile, smuggling underling Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue) has learned he’s about to be sidelined by his adopted father figure in favour of a feckless biological son and suspects his boss is about to have him offed. Gui Cheng preempts the situation by taking out the son’s guys and replacing them with his own before turning his would-be-assassin’s knife (or more accurately harpoon gun) back on him only for Sai Gau to arrive and ruin everything, unwittingly kicking off a series of unfortunate events for all concerned.

Li sets up Sai Gau and Gui Cheng as inverted mirrors of each other – hence Sai Gau’s ridiculous blond hair which sets him apart from the darkness of the long haired Gui Cheng. Where Sai Gau is all impulsive, instinctual action, Gui Cheng is calm and distance personified. Gui Cheng rarely speaks and when he does he’s concise and to the point, whereas Sai Gau, while not especially loquacious, is a classic wisecracker who speaks without thinking and is unafraid of the consequences of his words. Yet both men are also playing against themselves – Sai Gau has adopted the teenage daughter of the man he killed but refuses to allow himself to care for her, whereas the otherwise heartless Gui Cheng seems to have an intense yet platonic relationship with his female sidekick.

Twin betrayals set Sai Gau and Gui Cheng on an inevitable collision course leading towards a tussle over the gold which becomes more symbol than pure financial gain. Gui Cheng, once so calm and calculating, becomes fixated on harvesting what’s his, turning the buried treasure into his personal white whale while for Sai Gau it becomes the symbol of a long buried evil, a cursed charm designed to lure men to their doom by sending them into the centre of a storm it knows they cannot survive. Gui Cheng believes himself blessed by the goddess of the sea and that the gold is his for the taking, but it is ultimately the sea which claims him as he attempts to defy the elements to stake his claim on the cursed treasure which it has already swallowed. Sai Gau claims no particular spiritual affiliation but the gold, and its corrupting influence, reawakens his sense of morality as he becomes as convinced that the gold is evil as Gui Cheng is that it is his salvation.

The gold turns men into the “wild beasts” of the Chinese title though the English one seems to place them on the “brink” of losing themselves at any given time. Highly stylised, Li’s Hong Kong is one of neon lit darkness in which it is always raining and the air hangs heavy with despair and impossibility. The action scenes are impressively choreographed sequences of balletic beauty captured with Li’s gift for unusual composition and an urgent energy which acts as a harbinger for the coming storm. Pure pulp noir, The Brink has an almost Lynchian sense of lurking darkness creeping in from another, more mythical world the kind of which sailors sing about in their shanties and only talk about by candlelight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the star of Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL series directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, Han Jun-hee, 2015)

coin locker girl posterFamily in Korean films, unlike those say of Japan, has always been something of a double edged sword. Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운, AKA Chinatown) takes the idea of “family” and twists it around, bites into it to test its veracity, and offers a wry smirk as the metal begins to bend. Set in Incheon’s Chinatown, Han Jun-hee’s noirish thriller sends its heroine down a series of dark alleyways as she both fights and fights to retain her humanity whilst inhabiting an extremely inhuman world.

Il-young (Kim Go-eun) was found, covered in blood, hidden away in a coin locker, an abandoned child with no clue as to her identity or that of the woman who gave birth to her. Named and taken in by a collection of beggars at the station, she began her life as a street rat though not, perhaps, entirely unloved or friendless. As a young child she was then taken by gangsters working for a fearless female gang boss known as “Mom” (Kim Hye-soo). Mom is not one to suffer fools and feels no compunction in getting rid of those no longer useful to her. She soon puts Il-young to work, pamphleteering, begging, and eventually debt collecting as she grows older under Mom’s watchful eyes. By the time Il-young is almost come of age, she has an older brother and a sister as well as a younger brother with learning difficulties whom Mom still looks after despite her otherwise unsentimental approach to life.

The trouble starts when Mom sends Il-young to collect a debt from the young son of a man who’s skipped the country. Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-gum) is not like the typical clients she’s met before. He opens his door, invites her in, even offers to feed her before she leaves. Il-young finds all of this very strange. She’s never met anyone “nice” before and wonders what his angle is. Seok-hyeon, however, does not appear to have much of an angle aside from perhaps the usual one. Spending a bit of time with him, Il-young begins to develop certain feelings which see her swapping her Mom-style slacks and jackets for pretty summer dresses. Despite his son’s faith in him, Seok-hyeon’s father has not kept his end of the bargain and so Mom decides it’s time to call in the debt by offing Seok-hyeon and harvesting his organs. Il-young has a choice – between the woman she calls “Mom”, and a naive young man she has come to like though he has no place in her kill or be killed world.

One of the most attractive qualities about the young Il-young was that she didn’t exist. No birth certificate and no identity meant that she could be Mom’s to do with as she pleased. Consequently, adolescent Il-young has a more complicated relationship with her “Mom” than most young women but is also acutely aware of the debt of gratitude which is owed, the precariousness of her position, and the reality that she has nowhere else to go should she decide to try and break away from the world in which she has been raised. Never quite sure what her relationship to Mom is, Il-young has come to think of the other children in the same situations as siblings, but again cannot be sure that they feel the same.

Like many a good film noir, the tragedy lies in not completely closing off one’s heart as the harshness of the world dictates. Mom rejects those who are not useful and terminates those who have betrayed her with extreme prejudice, but despite herself she cannot destroy Il-young. Stepping back from her code, her orders are to let Il-young live, condemning her to a fate perhaps worse than death but alive all the same. Mom is betrayed by another child figure enacting a petty act of revenge, but her decision to let Il-young live is the one which threatens to condemn her. Having believed herself an unloved, unwanted child, Il-young is left with two terrible legacies of abandonment and the feeling that she will never leave that coin locker in which she has been trapped since birth. The cycle of maternal sacrifice continues, though Il-young has the opportunity to change her fate by taking charge of it, picking up where Mom left off but with greater compassion even within the confines of her still cruel world.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Manchester (11 Nov) and Glasgow (16 Nov).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The First Lap (초행, Kim Dae-hwan, 2017)

The First Lap posterFor some, life is a series stages. Education, work, marriage, parenthood, death. For others, life is more like a continuous stream, a series of minor movements in an ongoing symphony. The couple at the centre of Kim Dae-hwan’s second film, The First Lap (초행, Cho-haeng), are contentedly (for the most part) trapped in a permanent adolescence living chaotic lives aside from what most would consider the mainstream. Together for seven years but still unmarried, Ji-young (Kim Saebyuk) and Su-hyeon (Cho Hyun-chul) are forced to confront their liminal status when the twin pressures of a pregnancy scare and obligatory family visits place a strain on their otherwise settled relationship.

Their two year rental contract up for renewal, Ji-young and Su-hyeon are packing up to move somewhere cheaper when Su-hyeon gets an awkward phone call from his brother inviting him home for his father’s 60th birthday party. Su-hyeon obviously does not want to go and makes a series of excuses despite Ji-young’s urging that he should probably attend. Ji-young also drops the bombshell that she’s worried she might be pregnant which raises several problems for the couple both financial and emotional. The next day they set off on a trip, but it’s to visit Ji-young’s well-to-do parents in their new high-rise Incheon apartment.

Kim structures the film around the two very distinct family environments, subtly suggesting the various reasons neither Ji-young or Su-hyeon are in favour of moving onto the next stage stems back to their own problematic upbringings. Though Ji-young’s family are financially secure and occupy a traditionally middle-class social stratum with her father working for the government and mother in real estate, the home is a cold one and Ji-young’s mother a harsh and direct woman who is unafraid to speak her mind regarding what she sees as her daughter’s poor life choices. In what will become a recurrent motif, Ji-young’s mother wants to know why the couple aren’t married, pointing out Ji-young’s advancing age and the unseemliness of an unmarried woman over thirty. After pointedly telling Ji-young she is not proud of her and in fact thinks of her as a disappointing embarrassment, Ji-young’s mother goes off the deep end on discovering the pregnancy test in Ji-young’s bag, driven into a fury of conservative discombobulation at the thought of being grandmother to a child born out of wedlock.

Ji-young is afraid to become a mother in case she becomes her mother and does to her child what her mother has done to her. Su-hyeon has a similar problem, though his is one of intense discomfort with his familial environment in growing up in an unhappy home. Travelling back to the tiny fishing village where Su-hyeon’s parents used to own a sashimi restaurant but now apparently work for a factory which has all but destroyed the area’s previously lucrative tourist industry, Ji-young could not be more out of place. Unlike the ordered coldness of Ji-young’s parents’ swanky apartment, Su-hyeon’s family home is one of repressed heat in which longstanding arguments seem permanently primed to spark. Su-hyeon, depressingly used to this kind of scene, ushers Ji-young out the door just as it looks about to kick off, only for her to urge him back to “do something’ – something he’s long given up the idea of doing. Su-hyeon does not want to live in this kind of family or make his wife as miserable as his mother has been married to a man she can’t stand who holds only contempt for his more sensitive son.

Thus Ji-young and Su-hyeon find themselves at an impasse facing both economic worries and long standing emotional fears for the future. All around them, society seems to be in flux – Su-hyeon travels through a subway as protestors from the “Candlelight Revolution” make their way home after another long day spent peacefully protesting the administration of Park Geun-hye. Even young couples like Ji-young and Su-hyeon not usually interested in politics are drawn to the movement, suddenly finding themselves free to consider a better future, not the one they’re supposed to have but the one they actually want (if they can figure out what that actually is). A visit to the protest proves a surprisingly romantic outing. Sharing hot soup in the midst of candle light and gentle music, the pair wander around, still directionless and unsure where exactly it is that they’re going but happy to be together wherever it is they might end up.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Screening again in Manchester in 11th November, 1.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)

The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Byun Sung-hyun, 2017)

merciless posterHeroic bloodshed is alive and well and living in Korea. The strange love child of Na Hyun’s The Prison, and Park Hoon-jung’s New World, the first gangster action drama from Byun Sung-hyun (previously known for light comedies), The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) more than lives up to its name in its noirish depiction of genuine connection undercut by the inevitability of betrayal. Inspired as much by ‘80s Hong Kong cinema with its ambitious, posturing tough guys and dodgy cops as by the more immediate influence of the seminal Infernal Affairs, Byun’s brutal tale of chivalry is, as he freely admits, an exercise in style, but its aesthetics do, at least, help to elevate the otherwise generic narrative.

That would be – the complicated relationship between young rookie Hyun-su (Im Siwan) and grizzled veteran Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Hyun-su proves himself in prison by besting current champions bringing him to the attention of Jae-ho – the de facto prison king. Sharing similar aspirations, the pair form a tight, brotherly bond as they hatch a not so secret plan to take out Jae-ho’s boss, Ko (Lee Kyoung-young), leaving Jae-ho a clear path to the top spot of a gang engaged in a lucrative smuggling operation run in co-operation with the Russian mob and using the area’s fishing industry as an unlikely cover.

We’re first introduced to Jae-ho through reputation in the film’s darkly comic opening scene in which Ko’s resentful, cowardly nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-won), has a strange conversation with a soon to be eliminated colleague. Byung-gab says he finds it hard to eat fish with their tiny eyes staring back at you in judgement. He admires Jae-ho for his ice cold approach to killing, meeting his targets’ gaze and pulling the trigger without a second thought.

Jae-ho is, indeed, merciless, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure his own rise through the criminal underworld. He will, however, not find it so easy to pull that trigger when he’s staring into the eyes of sometime partner Hyun-su. Neither of the two men has been entirely honest with the other, each playing a different angle than it might at first seem but then caught by a genuine feeling of brotherhood and trapped in storm of existential confusion when it comes to their individual end goals. Offering some fatherly advice to Hyun-su, Jae-ho recites a traumatic childhood story and cautions him to trust not the man but the circumstances. Yet there is “trust” of a kind existing between the two men even if it’s only trust in the fact they will surely be betrayed.

Byun rejoices in the abundance of reversals and backstabbings, piling flashbacks on flashbacks to reveal deeper layers and hidden details offering a series of clues as to where Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s difficult path may take them. Truth be told, some of these minor twists are overly signposted and disappointingly obvious given the way they are eventually revealed, but perhaps when the central narrative is so fiendishly convoluted a degree of predictability is necessary.

The Merciless has no real political intentions, but does offer a minor comment on political necessity in its bizarre obsession with the fishing industry. The police know the Russians are involved in drug smuggling and using the local fishing harbour as a front, but as fishing rights are important and the economy of primary importance they’d rather not risk causing a diplomatic incident by rocking the boat, so to speak. The sole female presence in the film (aside from Hyun-su’s sickly mother), determined yet compromised police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), is the only one not willing to bow to political concerns but her methods are anything other than clean as she plants seemingly vast numbers of undercover cops in Jae-ho’s outfit, only to find herself at the “mercy” of vacillating loyalties.

Heavily stylised, Byun’s action debut does not quite achieve the level of pathos it strives for in an underwhelming emotional finale but still manages to draw out the painful connection between the two anti-heroes as they each experience a final epiphany. An atmosphere of mistrust pervades, as it does in all good film noir, but the central tragedy is not in trust misplaced but trust manifesting as a kind of love between two men engulfed by a web of confusion, betrayal, and corrupted identities.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on 3rd November, 6.30pm. The Merciless will also screen at:

and will be released by StudioCanal on 13th November.

International trailer (English subtitles)