No Tears For The Dead (U-neun nam-ja)
Korea (2014) Dir. Lee Jeong-beom
Having set a new standard for the grisly and violent revenge flick with 2010’s The Man From Nowhere, interest was keen for director Lee Jeong-beom’s next project. The answer finds him walking a similar path with a hint of what films Lee has been watching in the interim, which I shall elaborate on later.
No Tears For The Dead is another tale of blood soaked vengeance at the heart of which is Korean born-US based hitman Gon (Jang Dong-gun). During a hit at a nightclub Gon accidentally kills a young girl Yumi (Kang Ji-woo), an act which traumatises him to the point he quits. However his boss Dai Ban (Dana Lee) has one last job for Gon before he can leave.
John Lee, (Kim Joon-Sung) an associate of Gon’s victim, returns to Korea with money stolen from a Triad gang. With Lee’s fellow embezzlers already targeted, Gon is assigned with killing the deceased’s wife Choi Mogyeong (Kim Min-Hee) – Yumi’s mother and an employee of Lee’s. She unwittingly has some crucial information in her possession from her late husband that both Lee and the police want. But with the guilt riding high Gon decides to protect Mogyeong instead.
The success of …Nowhere has opened many eyes to Lee Jeong-beom, especially on the international market, putting pressure on him to deliver a strong follow up. It’s interesting that he choose to stick with the violent thriller theme when his debut, 2006’s Cruel Winter Blues was a languid, character driven take on the gangster genre, vastly different from its successor …Nowhere.
By doing so, audiences may find themselves making comparisons between No Tears… and …Nowhere, which might explain why it underperformed at the Korean box office. This may be an easy trap to fall into on first reading of the plot synopsis and with the extreme violence but No Tears… is capable of standing on its own merits.
The story becomes a little overloaded and not always as clear as it could be in establishing many of the peripheral characters. For example, the team Gon works with includes two Americans with apparent bad attitudes, Juan (Anthony Dilio) and Alvaro (Alexander Wraith), along with another Korean Chaoz (Brian Tee) who have history with Gon which is mentioned frequently but never expanded upon. However this doesn’t stop the trio turning on Gon with ease.
Lee Jeong-beom tries to create a sense of intrigue and mystery with the addition of a further sub-plot involving John Lee’s corrupt company director Byeon (Kim Hee-Won) whose loyalty appears to be open to question, while the police also have trouble in their ranks, not to mention an arrogant leader in Detective Jang (Jeon Bae-Su). With so many groups colliding with each and causing fatalities losing track of who is after whom is understandable.
It wouldn’t be a Korean thriller without gallons of blood spilled, limbs stabbed and broken and a few explosions here and there and much like with Nowhere, Lee obliges with abandon and unrepentant frequency. A mixture of gunplay and martial arts combat, there is a distinct boost in energy once the action kicks in and should delight the bloodthirsty adrenaline lovers among you.
Earlier I alluded to Lee perhaps being influenced by recent films: with the brutal and bloody climax taking place in the corporate offices of John Lee’s company and Gon, now dressed in black, going from floor to floor to save Mogyeong, a slight hint of The Raid is detectable. This not accusing Lee of delivering a rip-off at all but there is some obvious shared DNA in the fights – notably the close contact knife fights and MMA style strikes and holds – but they are all enjoyably vicious and well choreographed affairs.
In the midst of the bloodshed and betrayal, there is an emotional character study of the two central characters, both of whom are seeking redemption. Gon has been haunted by the killing of Yumi and finds the coldness of his colleagues and boss even too much for his callous standards. After seeing firsthand the suffering Mogyeong continues to endure, Gon finds a reason to do the right thing for once, spurred on by his own painful memories as an abandoned child.
Mogyeong is not only grieving the loss of her husband and daughter but her mother (Lee Young-lan) is also in hospital with dementia. It was Mogyeong’s work load that caused Yumi to be left in the care of her husband and later taken to the US; she is determined not to allow this to get in the way of caring for her mother, but it takes its toll on her, and Mogyeong’s bedtime is often preceded by a nightcap of booze and pills.
It would have been easy for the script to foster a romance between Mogyeong and Gon with the former being unaware this is the man who is the catalyst for all her troubles, but this temptation is resisted, keeping the relationship at arm’s length. However the irony that Mogyeong must rely on Gon to live is always prevalent, not withstanding that Gon’s erstwhile partners are privy to this information.
Casting the popular Jang Dong-gun was a gamble which paid off, his prior experience in thrillers and dramas proving a solid foundation to build the complex character of Gon on. Even at 42 year of age he dedicated himself to a strict training regime for the action scenes. As Mogyeong, Kim Min-Hee’s distinctly stoic features work in her favour as her character spends much of the time either confused or highly emotional. It’s a draining role but Kim lasts the distance with typical Asian aplomb.
What ultimately holds No Tears For The Dead back from reaching the heights of its predecessor is the slow start and clogged up script. Some necessary streamlining in that area is evident otherwise this is another gory, dark but well-constructed and enjoyable Korean action thriller.