No Mercy (Eonni)
Korea (2019) Dir. Im Kyung-Taek
If there is one thing Korean cinema is good at it is the violent revenge thriller, though they have been a bit heavy on the testosterone. Aside from 2005’s Princess Aurora, women weren’t given much chance to fight back, until The Villainess kicked the doors open in 2017, followed by sci-fi actioner The Witch and now we have No Mercy.
Former bodyguard Park In-ae (Lee Si-Young) is fresh out of prison after following an 18-month sentence for a stabbing incident and back with her teenage sister Eun-hye (Park Se-wan) who has some learning difficulties. One afternoon, Eun-hye doesn’t come home from school and isn’t answering her phone, having been accosted by bullies who take her into town and force her to participate in their sordid activities.
A distressed In-ae visits the school to see if Eun-hye is there but she isn’t whilst a complaint to her teacher is dismissed as Eun-hye being a typical teen runaway. Another girl who was also taken out by the bullies shows In-ae a video on her phone of what happened to Eun-hye, enraging In-ae who demands answers, and will stop at nothing until she sees her sister again.
There is really nothing subtle about No Mercy which may or may not be to its advantage, depending on whether you want straight up, balls-to-the-wall action or a more fleshed out drama with a strong message. Then again it is only 93-minutes long so trying to turn this into a character driven story and not just a flimsy excuse for a hot woman to kick butt seems rather futile in that respect.
But this is selling Im Kyung-Taek’s debut short as it is more substantial than just bloody-minded (or just bloody) violence as we learn once In-ae’s path of destruction continues. With the major details revealed through flashback and not always chronological, we see that this is not so straightforward after all – the caveat is that an extra twenty minutes of so might have made all the difference in strengthening the story and characters.
Revenge films need a sympathetic protagonist and when that role is given to a female, it is sadly predictable there will be a non-consensual sex related basis for their vengeance. This is no different though In-ae isn’t the victim which makes it more shocking to watch, instead simple minded and underage Eun-hye is the nominal sex toy of this yarn.
It starts with the class bullies forcing her to play bait to scam money from men at hotels, where Eun-hye texts the room number, the boys arrive and bribe their silence. This works until they pick on Ha Sang-Man (Lee Hyeong-Cheol) a dangerous loan shark who fights them off, then sells Eun-hye to a massage parlour owner, the first of a line of men Eun-hye gets passed around among, including a corrupt politician, (Choi Jin-Ho).
This isn’t the worst revelation regarding the systematic abuse Eun-hye endures but in fuelling In-ae’s mission as she crumbles under the emotional strain, it frames her drive as more regret than revenge though the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But it exposes a deeper issue of the shameless abrogation of responsibility of others involved – almost every man In-ae confronts blames Eun-hye for their sexual misconduct.
Meanwhile the police and the teachers won’t help In-ae as “teenagers run away all the time”, and, according to them, it is In-ae’s responsibility to keep her sister safe. Even when trying to escape one of her many captors and Eun-hye is dragged off a packed bus kicking and screaming, nobody does anything. If Im Kyung-Taek is keen to make a point about the poor treatment of mental health sufferers, this is quite an extreme way to do so.
No wonder In-ae becomes a relentless one-woman killing machine but unlike any male counterpart, she doesn’t take any pleasure from it, her face wracked with a different pain to that on those of her emasculated victims. A mixture of blunt violence, tidy fighting and some creative acts of destruction, the earlier expository note about In-ae being a top bodyguard is certainly backed up in spades.
For Korean cinema this is might be a leap forward in terms of pushing a female equality agenda – though it’s all men are scum rhetoric is a little heavy handed, not just relying on the patriarchal misogynist trope but also implying rampant paedophilia too – with a strong and credible female action lead, but it also banks on the allure of In-ae in her sheer red mini dress and high heels to tick the sexy kick ass babe box for the male viewers.
However, the script is surprisingly clever on that front, if openly contrived, in that In-ae isn’t wearing this to be sexy, rather it is clearly established as a matter of circumstance. The film’s opening scene admittedly undermines this, showing In-ae from below the waist only but this is as misleading as it is exploitative. Some habits won’t die heard and the constant victimising of women in cinema is one proving immutable regardless of which gender is meting out the retribution.
Lee Si-Young is not just a pretty face, with an impressive record as a champion amateur boxer which is put to good use in the fight scenes, mostly performed in high heels for added impedance for In-ae. On occasion she looks a bit too subdued with her facial expression but this passes soon enough, whilst Park Se-wan is effectively charming and likeable as Eun-hye, though the catalogue of abuse she suffers is inhumane.
Debuting in a genre where boundaries are constantly pushed doesn’t seem to bother Im Kyung-Taek, taking on the challenge with gusto and making a decent job of it to boot. No Mercy’s hook of a female lead might be well intended or a post-#MeToo platitude, something a more developed story would have put paid to, but it delivers everything expected of it and more, reminding us why violent Korean thrillers are untouchable.