By Lee Hyo-won
opens the New Year box office with a slice of gruesome cadaver-cutting and a dash of heart-thumping chases. Obviously, this murder story is no firework event for families.
In the past, the normative formula for box office success had been period epics or action-packed stories highlighting the North-South Korean divide. But lately the focus has shifted to medium-budget, crafty crime thrillers featuring unexpected endings that slap you in the face.
Thrills once rooted in ruthless psychopathic terror lately began to take a more dramatic spin with sympathy-provoking homicides, throwing big moral questions into a murky gray zone. "No Mercy"
takes the latter to extremes; this tale of revenge may not be as visionary as "Oldboy" but it certainly is a match in terms of shock factor.
Indeed, "it's so violent, it's tragic", just as described by first-time director Kim Hyeong-jun
Moreover, the two lead actors, Sol Kyung-gu
and Ryoo Seung-bum
, harness their animalistic acting instincts to artistic ends, creating characters that feel intensely alive and even covering for glitches in the movie.
Seol casts off his usual disheveled image to play the cool, suave and adept forensic pathologist, Dr. Kang. He is about to wrap up his work in order to spend time with his daughter, who finally returns home after a long stint overseas. When a beautiful young woman is found butchered into six parts by a river, with an arm missing, Kang is beckoned for one last job.
makes her big screen debut as Min, a rookie detective whose keen wits and undying enthusiasm narrow down the investigation, which points to Lee Seong-ho (Ryoo) as the primary suspect.
Lee, a respected environmental activist, confidently admits his guilt, saying that he committed the crime in order to oppose constructions that would divide a local river into six parts (hence the six body parts). But "No Mercy"
does not stop short of being a spinoff of "Seven".
The police become baffled as clues keep contradicting Lee's guilt, however, while Kang's beloved daughter is kidnapped. Kang realizes that the abduction is related to Lee; Lee offers to prevent his child from being killed in return for vindication. Kang starts tampering with autopsy results but senses that Lee has other intentions.
The movie is initially reminiscent of thrillers in which the protagonist stands at a crossroads between professional integrity and personal interest such as "Seven Days"
or "Secret - 2009
". But subsequent climactic blows ― though including some rather unnecessary scenes of provocative violence ― prove to be but an appetizer to a mind-blowing finale.
commands every ounce of one's attention. The convoluted plotline and dragged out middle section fatigue the mind at times, but the leading men keep things edgy.
Seol's emotions rollercoaster from panic to agony in a performance that is as memorable as "Peppermint Candy
". Ryoo, on the other hand, makes an impressive rite of passage into his 30s with nothing more than a quizzical facial expression; he is neither the heartless psychopath nor a hysterical vengeance-ridden killer. Even before his dark secrets begin to surface he inspires goose bumps with a subtle eeriness.
However, the most haunting part begins after the story comes to an end, as the viewer is left alone to contemplate the line between retributive justice and vengeance that ironically stems from compassion.
In theaters Jan. 7, 2010. Distributed by Cinema Service