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The Merciless (DVD) (Korea Version)
Im Si Wan (Actor) | Sol Kyung Gu (Actor) | Jeon Hye Jin (Actor) | Jin Seon Kyu
The Merciless (DVD) (Korea Version)
This professional review refers to The Merciless (DVD) (Korea Version)

The Korean gangster craze continues with The Merciless, the third film from writer-director Byun Sung-hyun (Whatcha Wearin'?), his first outing in five years. A slick, big-budget production, the film has an all-star cast headlined by actors Im Si-wan (The Attorney) and Sol Kyung-gu (My Dictator), both of whom picked up a number of awards and nominations for their hardboiled performances. The film was a hit with critics in general, winning prizes at the Daejong Film Awards, the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards and the Grand Bell Awards, and had a prestigious world premiere out of competition in the Midnight Screenings section at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

The film's complex plot focuses on the relationship between gangster Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) and his young protégé Hyun-soo (Im Si-wan), who team up while in jail together and scheme to take over the Busan underworld upon their release. Despite the fact that Hyun-soo is actually an undercover cop, he throws himself into the criminal life, working with Jae-ho to eliminate his enemies as part of a campaign to try and bring down his boss Chairman Ko (Lee Kyung-young, Inside Men). With Hyun-soo's own boss, the ruthless Chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin, The Throne), on their trail and a big drug deal with the Russian mob approaching, the tension mounts, and a series of shocking revelations threaten to ruin their plans.

This kind of cops, robbers and shifting loyalties yarn is nothing new, and on paper at least The Merciless resembles a long list of other recent Korean gangster films, not to mention the classic Hong Kong Infernal Affairs series. Thankfully, despite its familiar premise, the film stands out thanks to Byun Sung-hyun's accomplished and ambitious script, the narrative jumping back and forth in time, showing things from different perspectives and drip feeding the viewer may what or may not be the truth. With literally every character plotting against the others and with the police being just as bad, if not worse, than the criminals, there’s a huge amount going on, and the film packs in an impressive number of twists and turns, some of which are genuinely surprising. Although it can be a bit exhausting in places, the film is engaging and coherent, and its revelations are well-timed and dramatic, helping to notch up the suspense and never feeling merely manipulative.

The film also gets a boost from some great acting, with both Sol Kyung-gu and Im Si-wan on excellent form, playing things just the right side of crazy and over the top. Though the themes of loyalty and trust are overdone and hackneyed, there's real depth and tension to their dynamic, and this drives the film and adds another dimension to its labyrinth of lies. The relationship between the two is unusually intense for this kind of film, at times threatening to boil over into homoeroticism, and whether this is intentional or not, it's an interesting angle for the genre. The film is certainly very macho throughout, and though Jeon Hye-jin won her share of awards and nominations for her role as Chief Cheon, she doesn’t get a great deal of screen time – a shame, since her character is the most interesting of the supporting cast.

With lavish production values from start to finish, the film is visually striking and well-made, with a style that's equal parts neo-noir and 1980s Hong Kong triad cinema, Byun making good use of the Busan docks and scenery. The film has a smart use of action, throwing in car chases and fights when needed, and though there’s nothing particularly creative to the choreography, it's all suitably brutal and violent, and a few sadistic scenes work well to give things a hard edge.

For anyone not yet tired of Korean gangster flicks, The Merciless is one of the best and most enjoyable of the last year or so. Although there's nothing new here, Byun Sung-hyun's script is multi-layered and sharp, and Sol Kyung-gu and Im Si-wan help to give what might otherwise have been standard fare an entertaining boost.

by James Mudge -

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