“The Merciless” opened on 18th May 2017 in South Korea and topped the box-office selling 95,261 tickets. It had its World premiere at The 70th Cannes Film Festival 2017 on 24th May as part of the Midnight Screenings Strand. According to a number of reports, “The Merciless” received the longest standing ovation of all the South Korean films shown including “The Villainess” (Jung Byung-gil: 2017) and “The Day After” (Hong Sang-soo: 2017) at approximately 7 minutes. The film has since been sold to over 100 countries including India and the UK.
Starring veteran actor, Sol Kyung-gu as Han Jae Hoe, the leader of a gang, and with Im Siwon as Jo Hyun-soo as his closest confidant, in what should be a break out role for him, “The Merciless” plays with the form and function of the South Korean the gangster genre or jop’ok (meaning organised game members in the legal sense) action genre. The first cycle of the jop’ok action genre can be traced back to the late 1990s and central to the genre is male bonding in the face of adversity and the re/construction of masculinity through violence. As is typical of the gangster genre more generally, homo-sociality is implied through the close relationships between men in the group and in particular a relationship between an aging and a younger gangster: here Han and Jo. The two men meet while they are both in prison when Jo prevents a hit being carried out on the older man. The relationship between Han and Jo is one formed through and by violence, both inside and outside the prison: it is a “merciless” masculinity. Han sees in Jo the potential to rise up the ranks of his gang and help him get rid of Chairman Ko Byung-Chul (Lee Kyoung-young) so that he can take over leadership of the gang. The homosocial rituals that bind the two men together through the performance of a type of active and toxic masculinity. The key narrative enigma is embodied by Jo, abandoned by his father as a child and orphaned when his mother dies whilst he is prison, whose frightening violent veneer appears to be masking a vulnerability which can only be negated through acts of increasing brutality as a mechanism through which to reconstruct his identity, and with it his masculinity. The gangster-hero with his own moral and ethical code has been replaced here by an immoral anti-hero for whom even the homosocial bonds of the gang are not sufficient to command loyalty and obedience.
From the opening scene with its imagistic grammar of excess and disorientation, the cinematography is exquisite using a tonality of difference to mirror the narrative theme of surfaces and the hidden depths that lie beyond them. The colour palate oscillates between saturation and desaturation which helps to differentiate between the overlapping time frames through which the story is told. There is an overt visual reference to Michelangelo’s “The Last Supper” early in the film when Han and his men eat together sitting behind a long table in the prison mess, a scene which prefigures subsequent and multiple acts of betrayal which will ultimately fracture the relationship between the men, and the wider communities that they belong to on the outside world. Unlike some recent South Korean films, the action is always motivated and the camera, while mobile, is not intrusive, allowing us a viewers to emotional connect with Jo: whose hero’s (or antihero’s) journey is at the centre of the narrative.
Sol Kyung-gu, is as always, totally convincing and he is without doubt one of South Korea’s best actors. However it is Im Siwan who is the revelation here. Siwan started out as the member of the K-POP group, ZE:A, and is known best for his roles in Korean TV dramas: most recently appearing as the first male lead in The King in Love (2017). With his lean and lanky frame and androgynous appearance, Siwan epitomises the soft masculinity which is embedded within South Korean popular culture, particularly TV dramas and K-POP while his journey to ‘becoming a man’ articulates the contradictory discourses of masculinity in contemporary South Korea. In the ‘real’ world, men are forced to leave their soft, emotional and embodied masculinity behind through compulsory military conscription and transform into hard, and sometimes toxic, masculinity. As such Jo’s journey through violence in “The Merciless” can be understood as a replication of the transformation of masculinity through military service. Siwan manages to combine the vulnerable and the violent aspects of Jo seamlessly in what is the outstanding performance in the film. It is a shame that he will not be back on our small or large screens until after 2019 as he has just enlisted in the military: he signed up on July 11th and is due for discharge on 10th April 2019.
This is only Byun’s third film, and it is clear that he is a director to watch. “The Merciless” is one of the best examples of just how good South Korean cinema can be at its very peak.