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)

 

The Bow (활, Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

The bowKim Ki-duk is not known for his conventional approach to morality but even so his 12th feature, The Bow (활, Hwal), takes things to a whole new level of uncomfortable complexity. While nowhere near as extreme as some of Kim’s other work, The Bow takes the form of a fable as an old man and a young girl remain locked inside a mutually dependent relationship which, one way to another, is about to change forever.

The old man owns a fishing boat on which he lives with a young girl most assume to be his granddaughter. This theory is quickly disproved by the old man’s obsession with his wall calendar on which he excitedly crosses of the dates, making a note of how many there are left until the circled day on which is marked the word “wedding”. Whose wedding, one is apt to ask but the obvious answer is the correct one. The old man plans to marry the young girl on her 17th birthday. Having “found” her ten years ago, he’s been patiently raising her and now awaits his reward. It’s not clear if he has actually asked the girl, who seems to look to him as a paternal rather than romantic figure, but at any rate the relationship between them seems fairly solid at this point.

That is until one fateful day a young and handsome student boards the boat and immediately captures the girl’s attention. Having been cooped up here for ten a whole years seeing no one other than the old man and the guys who come to fish, the girl is instantly smitten – just like Miranda laying eyes on Ferdinand for the very first time. The old man is worried – is he about to lose his prize bride to a young buck? With the fateful day approaching, the girl becomes increasingly cold and rebellious towards her father/husband-to-be, though which direction she will eventually choose is anyone’s guess.

The old man is very protective of his charge, taking out his bow and arrow when the other guys on the boat try it on (and some take the chase to quite unpleasant places) but perhaps that’s more about defending his property from spoilage than it is about saving a defenceless girl from a traumatic situation. Neither the girl nor the old man speak very much, occasionally one whispers to the other who then passes the message on via another whisper to whomever it was intended for. Perhaps they genuinely have no need for talking but at any rate the girl never voices any objections to her life on the boat and the only signs of rejection given are a sullen look, rebellious courting of the customers and finally a good old fashioned slap to the face.

The bow of the title is both a weapon and a musical instrument when the string is tightened over a drum rather than across an arrow. The artist and the warrior are truly two sides of the same coin, swapping drums for arrows as the occasion calls. The old man, who is more or less cast as the protagonist of the tale meeting a final swan song, has all these qualities. A rough sea hand, he lives a life of isolation alone with the girl on a boat in the middle of the sea, the music their only form of entertainment. As well as the fishing business, the man also tells the fortunes of his customers by firing arrows at a picture of a Buddhist deity while the girl rides a swing in front. The boat itself is a world entire, with its own rules and rituals – all things are contained inside of it, violence mixed with beauty and love mixed with fear.

It’s ironic in one sense that the girl’s would be rescuer is another man with less prurient designs, but still designs all the same, on her as a woman. That she’s apparently lived on this boat for ten years with people coming and going all the time and with no great attempts to maintain a convenient excuse is shocking in itself. Whether the relationship between the old man is entirely genuine or born of a kind of Stockholm syndrome is a matter for debate, but Kim opts not to fully explore the uncomfortable elements of this unusual situation in favour of casting the old man as a kind of love fool.

Though actually featuring much more dialogue than the average Kim film, The Bow is at heart a symbolic exercise which becomes a complex and extended Buddhist metaphor. Playing out like a boat bound The Tempest, the old man becomes Prospero with a bow rather than a staff and as a prophet rather than a magician. The student, like Ferdinand, shatters their peace by bringing the outside world into their idyll with all of its pleasures and complications. The old man faces a choice, burn his books and abandon his kingdom or keep his daughter/wife-to-be fearful enough to stay with him rather than the young man who offers her, literally, the world, which she has never known. Kim descends into a surrealist frenzy as the finale approaches, culminating either in a beyond the grave consummation of true love or a spiritual rape, depending on your point of view. Whichever you choose, The Bow is both a complex and poetic exploration of human relationships but one that proves unpalatable and, ultimately, hollow.


Original English language trailer (dialogue free, English text)