Choosing to make a film in which the primary character or the character from whom the endeavour’s plot evolves is mentally challenged is not a decision made lightly. Certainly expression of beliefs and themes through cinema should not be shackled by restrictive measures, be they legally enforced or socially accepted constructs. That said, some topics require a more confident touch, a firm directorial hand that possesses cinematic know-how and common sense to tread carefully. Having seen the most recent South Korean revenge action flick No Mercy, the jury is still out as to whether or not director Lim Kyeong-taek is such a capable director.
Park In-ae (Lee Si-young) has just been released from prison for protecting her younger sister Eun-hye (Park Se-wan) from an aggressor in rather extreme fashion. However honourable her intentions, the courts saw fit that her actions justified the penalty, but now that the sisters are joined again, all in the world is calm and perfect, save of course for the additional burden of Eun-hye’s mild intellectual disability, encouraging In-ae to be especially protective of her sibling. In a stunning case of Murphy’s Law, a small group of bullying teens at school circuitously get poor Eun-hye involved in petty theft by using her as a would-be sex slave. Sadly, the problems have only just begun, as some really nasty people get involved as well, even kidnapping Eun-hye with the intention of selling her off as a real sex slave to a local congressman (Park Young-choon). Thank our lucky stars that In-ae happens to be one of the best martial artists in the country, ready to save the sister Taken from her.
No Mercyis a strange beast of a film. The film takes itself quite seriously, a fairly evident statement judging by the tone permeating the first act. Some of the banter between In-ae and Eun-hye serves to establish their strong bond, yet there is no mistaking that the director wants to fully commit to the potential dramatic richness the story holds. Is there a sense that the picture is taking the easy route with how the plot is set up? Yes, there definitely is. On the flip side, everybody heading into No Mercyknows what they’ve paid to see, which is not a heartfelt story of sibling bonding by overcoming the trials and tribulations attributed to mental handicaps. This is revenge thriller, so whatever serves set the stage competently will do just fine, and competent the opening act is.
It feels impossible that the viewer will predict the many twists and turns the story takes. To put it bluntly, Lim Kyeong-taek’s storytelling decisions make what could have been a serviceable action thriller into a gonzo misadventure that virtually prides itself on how many different ways it ups the ante. Keep in mind however that nothing is played for laughs, at least not intentionally. Unfortunately, some of the revelations are so jaw-dropping for their audacity and lunacy that some will not be able to hold back some chuckles. Of course, no major plot details shall be divulged in throughout this review, although it is extremely tempting to write about a few of them, if only to make the reader understand how bonkers No Mercy’s second half is.
Truly, this is a case of a movie finding inspiration in a legitimately sad, touching situation and tossing the characters in the mud so mercilessly and repetitively that at some point it actually becomes more difficult to take the picture seriously. Twists are exercised with the mistaken ambition of adding tension and drama. To be perfectly honest, in another movie said plot machinations might dutifully serve that purpose, helping to heighten the experience. Here however the tone feels off, as if the film is trying too hard to make In-ae and especially Eun-hye’s predicament all the harsher and more desperate. The theatricality of the performances from the actors portraying the villains of the piece, Park Young-choon, and Han-Sang-man, make their parts to despicable, so risible, they too, in fact, add to the challenge of taking the movie completely seriously.
The anchor preserving an air of seriousness is unquestionably lead actress Lee Si-young. She invests everything she has in making In-ae a terrifying personality to cross all the while retaining an aura of humanity and believability. In a sea of cartoonish acting, Lee is the one participant that dedicated herself to taking the material as seriously as possible. In another film, such stark contrast might spoil the fun, yet here her passion for the role helps balance out the tone, at least as much as a movie like this can be balanced at all.
Furthermore, even though few will put No Mercy’s action set pieces on par with the best Jet Li or Donnie Yen romps, there are a few truly impressive sequences in which the lead actress and her co-stars throw themselves full-throttle into nasty fisticuffs. The film’s highlight in that regard is a brief but no less inspiring tussle from the inside of a car, with the camera floating around the vehicle as it captures the action from through the front, side, and back windows.
When the dust settles, viewers will be left to ponder what incarnations happened during the production. The action is consistently solid if not always spectacular, the lead actress is a terrific gem and helps provide the entire project with some gravitas, yet so much else comes across as though the filmmakers were deeply convinced of the richness and power of the plots beats they added onto the pile but never stopped to consider if perhaps they were pushing the envelope too far. At the risk of using a terrible pun whilst quoting a popular comedy, never go full retard.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.