Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Shin Ha-kyun

D: Park Chul-hee

Superb production values aside--and really, what Korean movies aren't well made these days?--NO MERCY FOR THE RUDE has a lot of the elements that, when viewed in too many consecutive movies (which can happen in this country's films), tend to shift people away from Korean cinema for short periods of time, and help to explain the terrible financial slump that is plaguing the K-film industry right now. You'd think they could avoid it by mixing genres, but there's often a streak of emotional violence in many (but obviously not all) Korean movies --including comedies--that takes a toll after awhile, and this film has some of that, in addition to some rather cringe-inducing physical violence at odds with it's self-consciously quirky characters.

It's the story of a mute, loner assassin (Shin Ha-kyun, essaying yet another oddball like he did in SAVE THE GREEN PLANET) who lives by his own code of "cool" and dreams of becoming a bullfighter despite being a bit of a bumbler in his profession. His best friend is also an assassin and former ballet dancer who is saving up to buy a warehouse to make into his own studio. Isn't that just quirky and cool? He picks up and beds a sexy bar girl (Yoon Ji-hye) from a favourite post-kill gin joint, and she comes and goes from his life as she pleases, at least until a little street-urchin attaches himself to Shin, at which point a weirdly dysfunctional family is created. Oh, how inventive!

The killer's motto is summed up in the title, as he only kills those who deserve it (of course, the victims are so one-dimensionally sketched that we have to take the filmmakers' word for it that they're really deserving of the grisly deaths they receive). When a hit results in the death of the intended victim's twin brother, the usual volleyballs of revenge start getting served, leading this wannabe black comedy to a typically melodramatic and tragic ending that is almost a foregone conclusion in these kinds of films. Especially the ones from Korea.

Watching this as a double bill with CITY OF VIOLENCE (released the same year as this film; check the archives for a look at the love affair with J&B that it shares with this film) makes for an interesting contrast in styles of on screen physical carnage. Where CITY is cartoonish and winkingly overblown, MERCY marks each kill with the juicy pop of an exit wound or the nauseating (and repeated) "chukks" of knives thrusting into chests and stomachs--all lovingly and realistically recreated in crispity-crunchity DTS and effected as realistically as possible. A flashback scene involving a paid hit on an unsuspecting fisherman is a queasy highlight only because the filmmakers cleverly place the audience in the shoes of the first-time assassin, who (initially) has difficulty with the job because he knows nothing about his scared, misunderstanding victim, and neither do we, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. After that, blood flows with an abject realism but in the end there's no point to anything these self-consciously eccentric characters do, and their fates are made predictable by the very genre!

Some films in the "oddball assassins" genre will take at least modest pains to show the pointless and unrewarding nature of killing and its inevitable consequences, and I guess this one MIGHT be trying to get that across, but I find some of the more effective ones have at least a believable hero worth rooting for: MERCY's hero is practically a byproduct of his own imagination, but he's not even a remotely likable character once you see how viciously he can dispatch targets that usually don't get much opportunity to fight back. Nor is anyone he comes into contact with particularly likable beyond their wardrobes. By the time the festivities climaxed with the by-now de-rigeur Korean blend of melodrama and spitting blood, I found I couldn't have cared less.

Always remember, labels out! Yoon Ji-hye and Shin Ha-kyun

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