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)

 

A Man and a Woman (남과 여, Lee Yoon-ki, 2016)

A man and a woman postetSome memories are better when forgotten, according to the heroine of A Man and a Woman (남과 여, Namgwa Yeo) – the latest romantic melodrama from Lee Yoon-ki. The title, deceptively simple as it is, makes plain Lee’s intention to reduce this melancholy love story to a universal level in which two people who share a deep and genuine connection choose to sever it rather than break with social convention and/or incur the additional risks of ongoing entanglement. An elongated Brief Encounter, the ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong is a strangely old fashioned one in which unhappiness appears to be the ideal choice and a satisfied life an indulgent luxury.

Sang-min (Jeon Do-yeon) has brought her almost teenage son to Finland for treatment at a special needs school. Dropping him off for a school trip, Sang-min gets cold feet and tries to insist on accompanying the boy, only to be roundly refused by the carers. In the car park she runs into another Korean – Ki-hong (Gong Yoo) has been living in Finland for a couple of years and his young daughter attends the school to help with depression. Sang-min presses Ki-hong for information about where the camp is and eventually he offers to drive her. Predictably, they get caught in a snowstorm and have to stay overnight. A visit to a woodland sauna the next day leads to an intimate encounter but as soon as they arrive back in the city, the pair part ways without even exchanging names.

So begins the sad ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong which eventually takes them back to Seoul where they resume their affair, putting each of their families at risk. Both parties are married already but each desperately lonely in very ordinary ways. Sang-min is a highflying CEO of a small fashion line but also shoulders most of the responsibility of looking after her son who needs a lot of extra help to cope with his autism. Her husband is rational and distant; the marriage is not unhappy but perhaps emotionally unfulfilling. Ki-hong’s marriage is also under strain as his wife has ongoing mental health issues leaving him to look after their equally distressed daughter whilst also pursing a career as an architect. 

The snowbound, silent forests of Finland are an appropriate point for the start of the affair, echoing the couple’s frozen, interior blankness. Sang-min has a pre-occupation with time in Helsinki which she abandons in Seoul, less because of a literal return to the alternation of light and darkness than a inner feeling of it passing at a more predictable rate. In Finland she wanted to know everything, in Seoul she decides perhaps it’s better not to know. Ki-hong, by contrast, is a vague sort of person in both places. Yet their instant connection is real and deep. They echo each other, repeating their shared phrases and sharing something to which they cannot give a name.

Though living in more permissive times, the love of Sang-min and Ki-hong remains impossible despite the ongoing unhappiness of their married lives. Sang-min looks on enviously at her younger sister who is dallying in marrying her American boyfriend. Her sister tells her she wants what Sang-min has – to be “happily” married, entirely unaware of Sang-min’s loneliness and dissatisfaction. Ki-hong’s moribund marriage is difficult enough but the spark has already gone – his wife tells him she feels like a patient, the subject of Ki-hong’s dutiful devotion rather than a woman who is loved by the man with whom she shares her life. Despite all of this the idea of leaving their unhappy situations to find happiness in each other is never a real possibility for either Sang-min or Ki-hong who each remain trapped both by adherence to social conventions and a lingering reluctance to fully commit.

The forces which keep them apart are less societal than personal, an unwillingness to embrace the possibility of happiness or perhaps a sense that it is not something which is permitted to them. Times have moved on since Alec and Laura said goodbye to each other in a station cafe, unspoken emotion filling the room as a busybody inserts herself into a private world about to end. There is no particular reason why Sang-min and Ki-hong cannot be happy, yet they each eventually choose not to be. Frosty indeed, this is a love which is apparently best relegated to memory, untainted by time and eternally pure. Beautifully photographed and heartbreakingly bleak, A Man and a Woman is a sad story of refused connection in which love is a risk too great for two lonely souls.


Original trailer (English subtitles)