Director Byun Sung-hyun delivers a brash and confident dramatic thriller.
After helming a low-key music drama (The Beat Goes On) and a romantic comedy (Whatcha Wearin'?), director Byun Sung-hyun finally shows off what may be his true colors in the brash and confident half gangster thriller, half prison drama The Merciless, the second Korean film to be featured as a midnight screening in Cannes this year.
Hyun-woo, an undercover cop, goes to jail and positions himself under the wing of the top dog on the inside, whose side he stays by when the latter is released from jail and reassumes his position as the number two in a Busan gang involved in heavy drug deals.
There's nothing particularly novel about the story of The Merciless, which follows a similar trajectory to many Korean gangster tales and bears more than a passing resemblance to The Prison, which came out just two months ago, but the film manages to stand out through the verve of its staging and the colorful banter between its leads. Whether gliding around a location thronged with characters or guiding us through a montage with voiceover, Byun's clear directorial hand keeps the action sharp and entertaining throughout. Byun also shows off his flair for dialogue which, particularly combined with the film's mise-en-scene, elevates the more mundane scenes that are needed to drive the plot forward.
For what feels like the first time in many moons, veteran actor Sol Kyung-gu gets to stretch out beyond his usual solemn roles as cops or fathers, clearly enjoying himself as he plays a larger-than-life criminal with a twinkle in his eye and jaunty swagger in his step. His Jae-ho is a pleasure to watch and Sol manages to keep the role from being too showy as he allows for his uncertainty and vulnerability to peak out through the intense bravado.
Already a star from the Kpop scene, Im Si-wan has been diligently transitioning into an acting career though TV shows, and increasingly large roles in film (he debuted on the bgi screen in The Attorney), but The Merciless properly showcases his natural screen charisma for the first time as the young undercover narc. It helps to be able to trade good dialogue with someone of Sol's caliber, but the way he effortlessly switches between his cop and criminal personas hints at a talent that could be exploited for more ambitious characterizations in the future.
While a cut above most of its ilk, The Merciless does ultimately undermine itself with a few too many unnecessary and predictable twists in an extended final act that falls short of the emotional catharsis it strives for. The film may not stand the test of time, but it's a slick and breezy entry into the Korean thriller canon as well as a promising display of Byun Sung-hyun's evident talent behind the camera.