The Merciless (Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang)

Korea (2017) Dir. Byun Sung-Hyun

There is no honour among thieves. A phrase everyone has heard except for those in the criminal fraternity apparently, if Asian gangster films are to be believed. In his third film, Byun Sung-Hyun makes the huge leap from saucy rom-coms to violent thriller to add his version of this tale into this rather busy subgenre of Korean cinema.

Pretty boy prisoner Jo Hyun-Soo (Im Si-Wan) is finally released from jail following a three-year stretch, greeted on the outside by former jailbird partner and criminal bigwig Han Jae-Ho (Sol Kyung-Gu). High in the ranks of the gang headed by Ko Byung-Chul (Lee Kyoung-Young), Jae-Ho is secretly plotting to take his boss out after learning Byung-Chul was the one who set Jae-Ho up for his arrest.

Meanwhile, dogged police chief Chun In-Sook (Jeon Hye-Jin) is fed up with her superiors insisting that they only work on “media friendly” cases that she sets up her own “off the record” operation to bring down Byung-Chul and his drug smuggling racket. Her first step is to send an undercover officer into prison and befriend Jae-Ho in order to infiltrate the gang later on. The volunteer for this mission? Hyun-Soo.

If I were in a facetious mood I might have opened this review with “Stop me if you’ve heard this one” since the plot is admittedly derivative of numerous Korean and Hong Kong thrillers of the past two years. Considering Byun Sung-Hyun has claimed The Merciless is his homage to classic Hong Kong gangster thrillers, we can give him a pass on that – however the odd comparison to the classic Infernal Affairs might make some feel less generous towards Byun’s intentions.

Not that this is a blatant rip-off of Infernal Affairs, or that Alan Mak and Andrew Lau’s film was the originator of the undercover cop storyline, but if one had to pick an obvious influence that would be the first one to come to mind. Elsewhere the stomach-churning violence and tussling for power within the gang hierarchy is a staple of Korean thrillers allowing Byun’s film to appeal to genre fans still thirsty for more of the same.

Co-written by Kim Min-soo, Byun has taken on the huge task of telling a sprawling story which effectively borrows from all three Infernal Affair films and tries to cram it into one two-hour sitting. He is partly successful in that the salient points are put across and the story is told competently enough, but the characters are all so complex that their various individual backstories require in depth exploration which is afforded here.

Let’s start at the top with Hyun-Soo. When we first meet him, he is a cocky ex-con happy to be free, leading to flashbacks of his time inside and the eventful first impression he made on Jae-ho, at that time the “Guvnor” of the prison. An association is formed and acts of mutual bacon saving see the bond grow with Jae-Ho finding a handy ally when he learns of Byung-Chul’s betrayal.

Unlike other undercover cop tales, Hyun-Soo’s duplicity is revealed quite early on to the viewer along with the reason why he would make such a personal sacrifice. Naturally, this becomes an important plot point when the threads start to unravel. Like Hyun-Soo, Jae-Ho must have an interesting history, especially if his ambitions within the gang are enough for Byung-Chul to feel threatened, but this never arises.

One thing that seems like a lapse of judgement for someone as shrewd as Jae-Ho is confiding in Byung-Gab (Kim Hee-won), Byung-Chul’s nephew and hopeful to be the next boss based on their blood ties. It’s no surprise that everything Jae-Ho tells Byung-Gab is related to his uncle thus the old man is ready and waiting for Jae-Ho to make his move – and it’s not something that Jae-Ho is using to his advantage either.

Finally, there is Chun In-Sook, the only female with a meaningful role but in lacking certain nuances belonging to women, it seems like it was originally intended for a male. A brief flashback reveals In-Sook’s ire at Byung-Chul being let off the hook by her superiors but that is it; a full look at what makes her so pugnacious in her actions and the harsh decisions she makes would have fleshed out this fascinating character.

If such shortcomings can be overlooked then this ticks along nicely in delivering all the trademark set pieces associated with this genre – from a truly uncomfortable torture sequence to vicious multi-man brawls that defy logic, cleverly constructed scams to shockingly cold murders. Byun has done his homework on how to execute these and it shows, sticking closely to the blueprints whilst throwing fresh ideas in as well.

Visually Byun has also studied the use of shot composition to create the right look for the appropriate mood, employing some inspired framing and lighting in many scenes to give them a lift. Some nifty editing helps with keeping the flow maintain a steady pace but occasionally misused in situations that make it come off as gimmicky. The climax takes place in the dark, again for mood, but given the emotion behind it, the impact of the moment is lessened.

The cast all deliver compelling performances, inhabiting their characters on a level that is much deeper than the script deserves, with the one-two knockout combination of grizzled veteran Sol Kyung-Gu and fresh faced K-Pop idol Im Si-Wan carrying the film with their touching yet combustible partnership. Si-wan in particular delivers a breakout performance here yet his babyface looks are kept intact for his adoring female fanbase.

By the end of The Merciless you would be forgiven if you had forgotten whom the villains are as the final act is basically non-stop betrayals. The truth is there are no good guys, just victims of trusting the wrong people. You might have seen it all before but at least Byun ensures we know we’ve been on a heck of ride.