Following up his 2012 romantic comedy Whatcha Wearin’?, Byun Sung-hyun’s new Infernal Affairs-riffing gangster flick The Merciless delivers its action with a sly sense of fun. Early in the movie, a gangster named Kim Sung-han (Heo Jun-ho) rhapsodizes to a foreigner about his boss, Han Jae-ho (Sul Kyoung-gu), speculating that he feels no remorse or mercy. Sung-han then watches placidly as his associate murders the foreigner in the street. It’s a powerful and humorously staged moment of self-reflection, and it seems the film may work to subvert the notion that criminal enterprise is cool. However, while the film remains self-aware and the stakes stay serious, Sung-hyun Byun seems much more interested in gangster fun than proselytizing.
Using nonlinear storytelling cleverly and cogently, The Merciless follows the story of Han Jae-ho and his criminal enterprise, from Jae-ho’s time in prison to his post-prison dealings with Chairman Ko. Writers Byun and Kim Min-soo tell Jae-ho’s story from the perspective of Jo Hyun-su (Yim Si-wan), a saucy young inmate who catches Jae-ho’s eye during a prison-yard slap fight (the film features a gratuitous amount of slap fighting). Intrigued by Jae-ho’s position in the prison cigarette trade, Hyun-su works to get on good terms with him by helping him bribe a prison guard, as well as saving him from a rival gang’s shiv. By the time they leave prison, the two have become master and protege.
The Merciless is deeply masculine. Byun has made a film about an aggressive male social structure, and while he doesn’t actively denigrate his female characters, the few that exist serve solely to drive the behavior of the heroes, either by their weakness or scheming. However, the main characters are played capably, and offer surprising depth. Hyun-su’s journey from scrappy troublemaker to accomplished drug smuggler anchors the film, and Yim plays him with a charming boyish swagger. Sul imbues Jae-ho with gravitas, but also maintains a sense of humor and play. Even underling Sung-han is well conceived, and though played mostly for comic relief, finds respectable development within his character’s limited range.
The plot covers well-tread territory, and is unencumbered by grand symbols or themes; The Merciless simply glories in the tale, and Byun knows how to tell it. The story, one of constant, shifting deceit, is not over-complicated, but Byun consistently leaves enough off the table to keep the audience interested. The budding partnership between Hyun-su and Jae-ho sits at the core of the intrigue, but it is also the film’s emotional core. The whole film hinges on it, and Yim and Sul bring it — and the film around it — to explosive and satisfying resolution.
Byun doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel, but for those who enjoy the unique pleasures of mafia films, The Merciless should serve as a particularly enjoyable entry. The mixture of familial ties, massive amounts of money, and casual violence allows skilled filmmakers to explore complicated emotional territory without getting weighed down in pathos. Byun delivers with aplomb, and for all the dire nihilism suggested by its title, The Merciless is lively entertainment.