In the opening scene of "The Merciless", a couple of obvious criminals are having a dish of seafood, and discussing the unfortunate implications of of eating cuisine that appears to be looking at you. The end to their conversation is abrupt, and when the dust has settled, Jae-ho (played by Sol Kyung-gu) gets one last ominous look at the fish, clearly the real villain. Then we see Hyeon-soo (played by Im Si-wan) exit jail and walk onto the set of a music video.
Both of these character introductions are interesting and noteworthy, and for awhile "The Merciless" continues that streak with a wild jailhouse scene where bored inmates entertain each other by playing mild restriction fight club. But after that, the more I try to remember of "The Merciless", the fuzzier the movie's actual plot becomes. It doesn't help that some of the most basic exposition is really weirdly late. We don't even find out why Hyeon-soo is in jail until maybe a third of the way through.
And even when I did know that much, I didn't especially care- writer/director Byun Sung-Hyun manages to gives his characters the most boring possible motivation. When the whirlwind of betrayals comes at the end, none of it comes off as surprising or even particularly interesting because so far as I could tell none of these people had actual relationships with each other. I mean, I guess Jae-ho and Hyeon-soo bond...kind of? Over pouring boiling water on snitches?
I can see in the abstract what writer/director Byun Sung-Hyun was going for. The basic plot is reminiscent of "The New World", in that we're pretty obviously supposed to care more about the character relationships than everyone's career goals. But then, that's why "The New World" is such a classic- its characters are forced to ask whether their relationships or their careers are more important. That their careers involve flashy gangster movie stuff is just icing on the emotional drama cake.
I don't know whether it's because the story is so generic or the acting is so mediocre, but "The Merciless" just doesn't have anything like that going for it. Jae-ho has his moments as the guy obviously having the time of his life. Hyeon-soo, by contrast, barely reacts to anything that happens to him. While initially this makes him look disaffected and cool, by the end of the movie I was just left a little confused as to what exactly he even wanted out of life.
Yeah, we do have the closing film credit with the Korean title which reminds us- this is the world of bad people. Who I didn't care about, so what if they're dead? I mean really, I don't generally like to dump on supporting casts, but look at In-sook (played by Jeon Hye-jin-II). She's a woman who swears in an even deadpan. Her costars are even more forgettable than that. At one point they get so bored with each other and the story that they get distracted by a random background woman's butt. I didn't blame them.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Merciless""
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