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)

 

Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Park Kwang-hyun, 2017)

fabricated cityThe real and the unreal. In the era of fake news, it’s become ever harder to draw a clear line between the two but when you live online, the borders are even more permeable. Twelve years after the wartime comedy Welcome to Dongmakgol, director Park Kwang-hyun finally makes a return to the director’s chair with an action packed cyberpunk thriller which joins the ranks of recent Korean films bemoaning the country’s hardwired tendency to social inequality where the rich and powerful are free to run roughshod over the merely ordinary. Fabricated City (조작된 도시, Jojakdwen Doshi) refers to more than just the literally manufactured online world, but to the social reality in which unseen forces govern and define the lives of others, operating in secret behind a government backed curtain.

Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) was once a national athlete – a rising star of the Korean Taekwondo team. Starting fights when he wasn’t supposed to put paid to that dream and now Kwon Yoo is an aimless wastrel. Too sad and ashamed to have anything more to do with Taekwondo, Kwon Yoo spends all his time in gaming cafes, living a more successful life online. In his favourite game he’s known as the Captain, and the dashingly heroic leader of his party known as Resurrection.

One evening someone leaves their phone behind. It rings and Kwon Yoo answers it. Irritated, he’s about to hang up on the frantic sounding woman who wants him to bring the phone to her but her offer of money changes his mind. Kwon Yoo delivers the phone but the whole thing seems weird especially as the door was open and the woman in the shower when he arrived. Next thing he knows, Kwon Yoo is arrested for a brutal rape and murder. The police have a lot of evidence against him, and so Kwon Yoo winds up in jail where he’s branded a sex offender. Luckily a crazed serial killer realises this kid is no killer and helps him get out whereupon his loyal Resurrectionists valiantly come to the aid of their Captain in the real world, exposing the impressive fit up job that got him put away in the first place.

The deeper Kwon Yoo and his team dive the more corruption they discover. Kwon Yoo is not the only innocent sacrificed for someone else’s grand plan, there are others and the pattern is disturbing. Like Kwon Yoo, the other victims are usually people living on the margins – ones that no one would miss or the uncharitable might say were “unnecessary”, lives that can be exchanged for those of the rich and famous finding themselves in a fix. Kwon Yoo’s fate becomes an extreme version of that meted out to the young men and women of Korea unlucky enough to have been born without wealth, connections, or familial status – expendable and condemned to live without hope.

The fabricated city, in its more literal sense is the online world Kwon Yoo and his team have chosen and in part created for themselves in an attempt to escape the aspects of their lives and personalities which most disappoint them. Kwon Yoo, kicked off the Taekwondo team, has made a warrior hero of himself online, backed by a similarly escapist squad he doesn’t really know. His saviour turns out to be a shy computer genius who can only bear to talk via telephone even when in the same room yet has broken out of her self imposed isolation in order to save the life of her online friend. Other members of the team follow suit bearing similar backstories, attempting to live up to their fantasy selves for real with varying levels of success. Yet the fantasy world was all they had, locked out of all means of escape or advancement by the rigid social codes which make their present predicament possible, even if the fact remains that Kwon Yoo was doing a pretty good job of wasting his life all on his own.

Fabricated City’s biggest selling point is in its unusually well developed production design which takes its cues from the video game world with fantastical images from a prison carved into a mountain to the relatively more familiar cyberpunk influenced technological hybridity as floors become giant computer screens and everything really does exist online. Jumping genres from the classic wrong man to prison drama and eventually techno thriller, Fabricated City bites off more than it can chew but its well choreographed action and typically Korean sense of subtly ironic humour help to smooth over some of the film’s more outlandish moments.


Fabricated City was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, E Oni, 2016)

missing posterReview of E Oni’s Missing (미씽: 사라진 여자, Missing: Sarajin Yeoja) first published by UK Anime Network.


Since ancient times drama has had a preoccupation with motherhood and a need to point fingers at those who aren’t measuring up to social expectation. E Oni’s Missing plays out like a Caucasian Chalk Circle for our times as a privileged woman finds herself in difficult circumstances only to have her precious daughter swept away from her just as it looked as if she would be lost through a series of social disadvantages. Missing is partly a story of motherhood, but also of women and the various ways they find themselves consistently misused, disbelieved, and betrayed. The two women at the centre of the storm, desperate mother Ji-sun (Uhm Ji-won) and her mysterious Chinese nanny Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin) are both in their own ways tragic figures caught in one frantic moment as a choice is made on each of their behalves which will have terrible, unforeseen and irreversible consequences.

Ji-sun is a busy woman. Recently divorced from her philandering doctor husband, Ji-sun is in the middle of a nasty custody battle over her daughter, Da-eun, which she has technically already lost though refuses to concede. Seeing as Ji-sun is barely ever at home (and when she is, she’s often still working), Chinese nanny, Han-mae is on hand to help her out. Han-mae’s Korean is imperfect, but she’s good with Da-eun and seems to have the knack for calming both the little one and her mum.

Other than the custody battle heating up as Ji-sun’s mother-in-law is intent on getting her grand-daughter away from her son’s awful former wife, Ji-sun’s life was functioning pretty well, all things considered. When she comes home one day and realises Han-mae and Da-eun aren’t around she’s a little put out but assumes they’re just delayed, have stopped off with friends, or are off somewhere having a lovely time without her. When they haven’t comeback by nightfall Ji-sun starts to worry.

Missing does its best not to judge either of the women. Though there is the subtle criticism of Ji-sun’s parental absenteeism, it’s largely manifested through her own feelings of guilt and fear as she’s placed in the difficult position of unexpected, middle-aged single parenthood. Divorced from her cold-hearted, selfish, lothario of a husband, Ji-sun would have needed to get a high paying job and maintain a middle class lifestyle to have any hope of keeping her daughter though the need to maintain both of those things would necessarily mean that she won’t be able to spend a lot of time with her child. Torn between the need to prove she can support herself alone and the need to play a fuller role in her daughter’s life, Ji-sun is understanably squeezed from both ends and left with little choice about any of it.

The problems both she and Han-mae face are those of an inherently sexist and intolerant society which forces them to prove themselves as women and judges them harshly when it believes they’ve deviated from the expected course. Ji-sun’s bosses make overtly sexist comments towards her, exclaiming that this is why they “don’t like employing mothers”, the police don’t want to believe her kidnap story because she’s just another hysterical woman, and her ex-husband knows he can take their daughter simply because he’s a man with a good job and a ready home.

Han-mae’s life has been darker and crueller, though hers is a greater struggle as she finds herself in an even lower status through being non-Korean and having poor language skills. Language skills are something she’s actively been denied in order to keep her from trying to escape a life of serfdom but in any case Han-mae’s prospects are not good. Ji-sun’s investigations take her to some very dark places as she searches for her child and begins to understand the reasons why she was taken. As a mother, as woman, and as a human being it is impossible to not to understand why Han-mae’s story ends the way it does, but it’s also impossible to not acknowledge a degree of unwittingly complicity in her ongoing suffering.

The last scene brings us unwelcomely back to that early debate surrounding the true mother and the unbreakable bond between a parent and a child, solving a complex problem neatly and smoothing it over with the gloss of emotion. Early on in the courtroom, Ji-sun says she’d do whatever it it took to keep her daughter, even run away with her if she had to. Later she says so again to a shady guy in a police cell who has more idea of what “anything” might mean, but Ji-sun was already doing quite a lot for Da-eun in running herself ragged just for the right to be near her. Neither Ji-sun or Han-mae were in any way at fault in the series of events which brought them to this point, a decision was made for them which was to have terrible, irreversible consequences. The two women are victims of the same oppressive social codes, but life is very different for each of them and if Ji-sun had been guilty of anything at all it was a blinkered way of living in which women like Han-mae are a barely visible presence except when needed to fulfil their allotted role.


Reviewed as part of a series of teaser screenings for the London Korean Film Festival 2017 the next of which, Queen of Walking, takes place at Regent Street Cinema on 22nd May 2017 at 7.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)