53rd Chicago Film Fest Screening #1: “The Merciless” (S. Korea)

“The Merciless” (S. Korea)
Directed by Sung-hyun Byun

Wow. What a fantastic way to start off the Chicago International Film Festival. When it comes to modern-day gangster epics, no one does it quite like South Korea. It seems they’ve all taken their lessons from Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America” in that relationship, emotional response and one’s personal history are more important than the plot or the action. These characteristics inform the plot, rather than the other way around. Oh…and, not to worry…the action is incredible. Restrained, believable, violent and incredible.

There is literally nothing I can tell you about the plot that won’t give something away, but I can say that the story is realistic and effecting in its illustration of how friendship and trust can grow (and be manipulated) in the most unlikely of circumstances. The dialogue manages to straddle that area between realistic and poetic, pulling us further and further in to both the emotional and deadly stakes, all while consistently maintaining the mystery of where our main characters stand from moment to moment. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the film is so dense, I was surprised that it only ran 120 minutes.

But the device by which director, Byun, makes it all work is his use of time-shifts. Executed so adroitly, and with such specificity, it practically becomes a character in the story. Not satisfied with merely giving context, these looks back are every bit as exciting as the action in the present. Add to this his fearless use of camera angles and a fantastic score, and this is an almost perfect example of the genre.

The acting is equal to the task, especially the performance of Si-Wan Yim. As the younger of the two main characters, he is about as three-dimensional as it gets right from get-go, which considering the emotional gamut he’s asked to run, is pretty remarkable. Antagonist, and veteran star of the Korean action industry,  Kyoung-gu Sol takes a little while longer to find his stride in the film…asked, as he is, to show the deadly crazy before he gets to show the deadly sincerity. But within twenty minutes, you are equally fascinated by his demeanor and his arc. But truly, the entire cast has been both expertly assembled and well utilized.

Finally, just a sentence to say how terrific the music is. One of the only weak links in the genre is the use of music. Usually over-composed and over-emotional, the music here is contemporary, fitting and perfectly placed.

If it sounds like I’m over-selling or gushing too much, you might be right. But this is a terrific film which transcends a genre I love while maintaining it’s place right smack dab in the middle of it. A must see when (or if) it comes to your ‘burg or your box.


Written on 10/13/2017

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