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)

 

Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)