Being a crime film in South Korea can be tough business. When you consider that some of the country’s very best films have often been about crime or are set in that world, suddenly it becomes so much more difficult to try and create something of value within the genre. Not every filmmaker can make a Memories of Murder or an Oldboy but understanding how one’s own film might be perceived as ‘unique’ compared to everything else in the country might make it stand out from the mediocre many.


To its credit, The Merciless, the new film directed by Byun Sun-hun which just screened out of competition at Cannes, does try and differentiate itself. As a more character-driven crime film, it is a bit different than the usual fare but unfortunately, familiar themes and stories within the genre remain and don’t offer anything new that hasn’t already explored. It is a film that essentially borrows from material found in better films, both in South Korea and abroad. There’s a bit of New World, Goodfellas, Infernal Affairs, Sonatine and Heat thrown in here but nothing truly distinct that The Merciless can call its own.



Violent crime boss Han Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) befriends fellow criminal Jo Hyun-soo (ZE:A’s Siwan) while serving time in prison. The two bond and, over time, form a relationship based on trust — especially after Jo saves Han’s life from an attack on the inside. But as these films usually go, there is more to Hyun-soo’s motives than we perceive and, predictably, he turns out to be an undercover cop. Does Jae-ho find out about Hyun-soo’s secret life and what will he do if he finds out? The Merciless answers these questions and more during its two hours yet does so in the most confounding of ways.


The first half of the film constantly fluctuates between the present and the past and introduces a new twist in the story at every turn. It’s not that it’s too much to keep up with but that in continually revealing one new piece of information after another, it’s easy to lose sight of what The Merciless is actually about. Is this about the cops with their backs against the walls who have to resort to desperate measures to take down a crime syndicate? Is this really about a pseudo father-son relationship? Or is it about Han’s own scheme to plot revenge against literally everyone in the film?



Beyond its lack of focus, other problems persist. Expositional information, the kind that one might expect early on the film, is given much too late — giving the audience further reason to simply ignore and not care about what they’re seeing before them. And even when its provided, the information is delivered very lazily. Poor motivations, flimsy backstories and generic characterisation all add up to a film that doesn’t know where to go and what to do with itself.


This is especially disappointing considering Sol Kyung-gu, an actor who has been lauded for his dramatic turns in Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy and Oasis, is seen punching below his range in this film playing a fairly one-dimensional character with a false sense of complexity written into the role. No one else in the cast fares much better in what are some rather pedestrian performances.



Seeing what meaningful value The Merciless could have brought to an audience is something its filmmakers perhaps could have spent more attention on. As a South Korean crime film, it was already fighting a losing battle. It didn’t need to be hugely innovative but some creativity would have helped. Even its single take action sequence, which itself is increasingly becoming a cliche despite its cinematic power, feels lazy in the grand scheme of things.


And writer-director Byun should perhaps know better too. His previous film, the delightful 2012 romantic sex comedy, Whatcha Wearin’, was a refreshing take on the Korean romantic comedy and provided honest dialogue between its young characters who were open to talking about their sex lives. It felt modern, new and exciting at the time of its release. It hadn’t really been seen before in that context and was fun because of it. The same cannot be said of The Merciless, which by film’s end had already become a dated afterthought.