It is a bit of a surprise that the action thriller The Merciless, which opened in the Cannes Midnight Screenings section, was directed by South Korean writer/director Byun Sung-Hyun, better known for romantic comedy and hip-hop drama films. He doesn’t disappoint. Byun’s stylish camerawork and pov shots give the audience a visceral feeling of being right there amidst the fiery brawls and brutal torture.
Although it’s bound to be compared to the Lau/Mak Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs and Scorcese’s remake The Departed, the number of twists and turns in The Merciless allow it to stand on its own. The melding of three different time frames – spanning three years – will be confusing for those not paying close attention. The opening sequence might seem a bit mundane, but it ends with a bang, a cool overhead shot and ties to the Russian mafia. In this scene, Han Jae-Ho – perfectly realised by veteran actor Sul Kyung-Gu – and his ruthless tendency to look one dead in the eye when he kills is first mentioned.
Sul’s distinctive laugh adds an unusual charm to his unmerciful nature. Well-known Kpop singer Yim Si-Wan portrays Han’s young protégé Jo Hyun-Su, who quickly learns to get his hands dirty both within the Gyeonggi prison and around the coastal city Busan. Their friendship is touching and sentimental, which comes as a surprise having started within the confines of a penitentiary. It’s a shame that Chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-Jin), while strong in her own right, is underdeveloped and underused as is her vendetta against gang boss Chairman Ko (Lee Kyeong-Yeong).
One shot of Jae-ho relaxing in his car accompanied by a playful jazz riff is mirrored later with Hyun-Su but instead with a rather melancholic violin track. Cho Hyung-Rae’s cinematography in these frames and in fighting scenes are standouts. It’s quite refreshing to watch hand-to-hand combat rather than scene after scene of gunfights. One shot sequence through the prison courtyard is quite graceful with classical music in the background. The musical choices enhance the tone of the film although at times it is a bit melodramatic.
Fans of crime films won’t be disappointed by The Merciless, although for all its slick and stylistic choices, it doesn’t bring anything all that new to the genre. Regardless, it is still a welcome and well-crafted addition to the world of bloody cat and mouse cinema.
The Merciless is released in selected cinemas on 27th October 2017.
Watch the trailer for The Merciless here: