The Merciless Dir: Byun Sung-hyun

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Get a taste of slick South Korean hardboiled pulp with this ultraviolent tale of betrayal that could tear a ruthless gang apart.

If I see made in South Korea slapped on a movie I’m in. They push the boundaries of B-grade genre pics and deliver something visceral and visually arresting. Like Yeon Sang-Ho’s Train to Busan, anything from Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) and Park Oldboy Chan-wook.

This slick addition to the growing ‘Korean Noir’ genre follows Jae-ho (Sul Kyoung-gu), a ruthless gangster who takes a young undercover cop under his wing in prison. After release he brings Hyun-su (Yim Si-wan) into the ‘family’ drug-trafficking organisation, and it doesn’t take long for loyalties to be tested.

Director Byun Sung-hyun co-wrote the script with Min-soo Kim and it’s hard-boiled as hell, with genre staples like corrupt prison wardens, dodgy mafia, cold-hearted violence and some delicious dark humour. The script flashes back and forward from the film’s best scenes in prison – as Jae-ho and Hyun-su bond – to present day, as plots are planned over a massive drug deal with the Russians.

Sung-hyun has gone through the genres and I think he’s found his calling – from Hip-Hop drama to rom-com and now crime thriller it’s an impressive first shot at brutal pulp fiction. It played at the Midnight Screening slot at Cannes and was already sold to 85 countries before its local release.

Part of the film’s allure is the chemistry from one of Korea’s biggest stars Sul Kyoung-gu and newcomer Yim Si-wan. Better known for his romantic roles Si-wan is charismatic as the young prison punk, and the loyalty-twisting relationship with his mentor is gripping stuff.

Terrific cinematography lifts it out of its genre doldrums too, there’s a head spinning tracking shot through an all-out shipping yard battle that Guy Ritchie would be jealous off. Plus the brilliantly choreographed prison fight that puts Hyun-su on Jae-ho’s radar is electric.

It might draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (itself a remake of brilliant Asian crime thriller Infernal Affairs), but The Merciless is its own beast –more interested in what lies beneath this father-son bond than the undercover operation.

Thought it gets too smart for its own good as it draws to its bloody conclusion, with double cross after triple cross almost for the sake of being surprising. In the end you’re not sure where your sympathies lie anymore.

If you’re after less arthouse and more roundhouse for your film festival experience The Merciless is pulpy gorgeously shot perfection.

Clayton Barnett (https://www.youtube.com/user/claymonster22/videos)

NZIFF Link: https://www.nziff.co.nz/2017/auckland/the-merciless/