The trend of action films focused on female leads in South Korea continues, with director Lim Kyung-taek’s new film “No Mercy”. While “The Villainess”, for example, mashed up action with some good old-fashioned Korean melodrama and “The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion.” tells a bloody, brutal female “superhero” tale, “No Mercy” has a more straight forward “Taken” tale of abduction and revenge.
In-ae has just been released from prison and moves back in with her teenaged sister Eun-hye, who is not completely healthy, mentally. The apple of In-ae’s eye, the simple Eun-hye survived alone while In-ae spent time in prison on false charges. While In-ae tries to look for a job as a bodyguard, something she was very good at before her incarceration, Eun-hye gets forced into a scamming racket by her bullying classmates. When one scam goes really wrong and Eun-hye gets kidnapped by some gangsters, In-ae sets upon a quest to bring Eun-hye back, a journey which takes her not only to her own past but also to realisations about what poor Eun-hye had to suffer in the absence of her elder, protective sister.
There is no doubting the ambition of Kim Min’s script for “No Mercy”. The film intertwines many social topics and commentaries within the tried and tested formulaic abduction tale. Where films of a similar mould would rest its laurels on the action sequences, “No Mercy” explores hard subjects such as bullying, treatment of the disabled, exploitation of minors, human trafficking and the inability of law enforcement, although superficially without delving deeper into any quite convincingly. The inexplicable connection between the lowest rungs of the Korean underworld and those on the high levels of politics is also touched upon. While starting with an all-too-familiar first act, the film goes into increasingly dark territory in its middle act before returning back to known territories for its final act. The emotional connection between the two sisters is well established and forms the crux of the story.
This brings us to the action element. The marketing for the movie didn’t sell a social commentary film; instead, it indicated that what we should be looking out for is an out-and-out action extravaganza. So does it stand up to that? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are a fair few action sequences, but they take a while to begin. When they do begin, they are of the stylised variety that we know South Korean cinema for and love. In that sense, the action does remind us more of “The Man from Nowhere” instead of something like “Revenger” or even “Unstoppable”. Despite that, the action does often seem grounded. The action scene between In-ae and the gangster Ha Sangman within the confines of a car is a personal highlight.
The cinematography, while capturing the action sequences well, is a bit uneven. The opening scene, with In-ae driving up to a garage and stepping out in her red dress and high heels looks straight out of a B-movie with its lighting choices, but when we see the same scene later in the movie, it is more in accordance with the look of the rest of the film. “No Mercy” finds itself slipping into that look every once in a while, which makes one wonder if it has anything to do with there being two cinematographers, Oh Jung-hyun and Nam Jin-a, collaborating for the film. At least the music is consistently thumping and appropriate to the genre.
Viewers who might be familiar with Lee Si-young’s work in KDramas would probably be a little surprised seeing her in such an action-heavy role, but what some might not know is that the actress has a very rich past of amateur boxing. Having won several titles at amateur level before turning to the entertainment business, it is finally fulfilling to see her putting her skills to good use here. The climactic fight lets fans get a glimpse of her frankly impressive boxing abilities. She also gets to showcase her range as well, with the emotional scenes she shares with Park Se-wan, who plays Eun-hye with doe-eyed perfection. The largely unknown actress has been in more KDramas than movies, but hers is one of the better supporting female performances this year in Korean films. In fact, most of the cast are KDrama regulars, with Choi Jin-ho as Senator Park, the ultimate destination on In-ae’s journey, Lee Hyung-chul as Ha Sangman and Lee Jun-hyuk as Senator Park’s stooge Han rounding up the cast.
“No Mercy” probably is at its finest when tackling social issues but stops itself short from making a definitive statement on any, making it seem a bit of a missed opportunity. A familiar storyline interspersed with familiar action sequences drive the film forward, but even Lee Si-young’s and Park Se-wan’s impressive performances sadly don’t manage to lift the film above mediocrity.