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This has been a bumper Cannes festival for South Korean cinema, with five features playing across the official selection, two in the genre-friendly Midnight Screenings slot that helped springboard Yeon Sang-Ho’s zombie apocalypse thriller Train To Busan to commercial and critical success last year. One of this year’s late-night premieres, The Merciless (Bulhandang) is a superior slice of hardboiled pulp fiction in the blossoming “Korean Noir” style.
Byun Sung-Hyun’s violent underworld saga brings little new to the genre, but its reliable cast, slick visuals and testosterone-drenched mood should draw a readymade global audience of Asian action fanboys. Launched in domestic theaters last week, with a French release scheduled for next month, the production announced sales to 85 territories to coincide with its Cannes launch.
Set in the coastal city of Busan, the pic begins with a wry exchange between a pair of squeamish junior mobsters drawing parallels between eating seafood and committing cold-blooded murder. This darkly comic vignette seems to promise a more arch, knowing, Tarantino-esque take on the gangster genre. But the plot soon settles into a more familiar mix of supercharged machismo, casual sadism, one-dimensional characters and profanity-peppered dialogue spiced with misogyny and homophobia. Indeed, the film’s domestic launch suffered boycott threats after Byun was called out for making sexist comments on Twitter, prompting him to make a public apology.
Feeling at times like a Korean-language cousin of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which was itself a remake of an Asian crime thriller, The Merciless revolves around a generation-spanning bromance between youthful wannabe gangster Jo Hyun-su (boyishly pretty K-pop music star Yim Si-Wan) and genial but notoriously amoral gangland veteran Han Jae-ho (Sul Kyung-Gu). This odd couple first forge a brotherly bond in prison after backing each other up in a string of brutal confrontations with bad-ass rivals and crooked guards.
On the surface, Hyun-su is an insolent young punk trying to pick a fight with anybody who crosses his path. But flashbacks reveal him to be a hotshot cop placed deep undercover inside the jail by his ruthless female police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), who is playing a long game to infiltrate a massive drug-smuggling operation run by Jae-ho’s paranoid crime boss, Chairman Ko Byung-gab (Kim Hie-Won). After winning his trust in jail, Hyun-su later joins Jae-ho as a foot soldier in Ko’s underworld empire, which is already lousy with lingering grudges and volatile rivalries.
Restlessly jumping back and forth in time, The Merciless comes together like a jigsaw, each piece revealing more detail of a grand canvas full of risky shared secrets, fragile loyalties and Faustian bargains. In the process, the plot gradually gains in sophistication as initially sketchy characters acquire a little extra shading, and familiar tropes prove less predictable than they first appeared.
The cinematography is luscious and the action sequences impressively staged, especially a massive brawl in which the camera becomes a kinetic player in the fray, pinballing dizzily around the room.
But in essence, Byun Sung-Hyun’s gangster saga is still formally and dramatically conservative, sticking comfortably within genre conventions, shunning psychological complexity in favor of violence as aestheticized spectacle. The unspoken homoerotic tension between Hyun-su and Jae-ho, for example, is very vaguely teased but never honestly addressed. A minor addition to the Korean action cinema canon, The Merciless offers thin pleasures in a glossy package.
Cast: Yim Si-Wan, Han Jae-ho, Jeon Hye-jin, Kim Hie-Won
Director: Byun Sung-Hyun
Screenwriters: Byun Sung-Hyun, Kim Min-Soo
Cinematographer: Cho Hyoung-Rae
Editor: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Kim Hong-Jip, Lee Jin-Hee
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight Screenings)
Sales company: CJ Entertainment, Seoul
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