What do you do when a serial killer has enough power over you to compromise your role as a forensics pathologist?
That is the moral quandary that puts forensics investigator Kang Min-ho walking a tightrope in director Kim Hyung-joon`s latest thriller, "No Mercy."
In what might have been a standard serial killer police procedural, sterling performances elevate the film to a higher level.
"This was a film that makes you reflect on humanity and human nature," Sul Kyoung-gu said at a post-screening Q&A session with the press on Tuesday in Seoul.
The veteran actor plays a forensics analyst investigating a murder of a woman whose mutilated remains are found scattered at a remote river in the idyllic North Jeolla Province.
Suspected serial killer Lee Sung-ho -- chillingly portrayed by the always intense Ryu Seung-beom -- begins an elaborate game of cat and mouse involving the disappearance of Kang`s daughter.
"Because my last film didn`t bode too well, I was in search of a film that would ease the pressure from my shoulders, and that film became `No Mercy,`" Ryu said.
"When I got wind of Sul Kyoung-gu`s involvement, I wanted to lean on him for support."
Portraying a suspected serial killer and a respected eco-friendly agricultural guru in a small rural county, Ryu`s character is every bit as menacing in the later half as he is harmless in the first act.
The film also stars actress Han Hye-jin as a rookie homicide detective who snags a whale of a case when she apprehends Lee.
During the post-screening press conference, she acknowledged that the film`s strength lay in the on-screen exchanges between Sul and Ryu.
"It was impressive to see the two so completely immersed in their roles," she said.
"During break when we had grab some food, even then it was an uncomfortable environment to be in when the two were on set."
Prior to the press screening, rumors had been floating around regarding the film`s violence and relentless pace. In reality, it is not nearly as bloody as the recent Hollywood turkey, "Ninja Assassin." But the difference is that the Wachowski`s ninja romp is so detached from reality that no one raised a single brow.
Just as charges of excessive violence were hurled at Quentin Tarantino`s earlier films, "No Mercy" may face criticism.
In Tarantino`s "Reservoir Dogs" the scene that created the most buzz was an infamous torture sequence.
In response, Tarantino came out to challenge those charges demanding his critics watch the sequence again as all of the violence occurred off-screen, and was simply implied.
The treatment of violence is similar with "No Mercy."
The film`s chaotic tone and its relentless pace is mostly held together by the scenes which involve Sul and Ryu`s interrogation room exchange.
It is probably the highlight of the film.
As a matter of fact, the film could even be remade as a tandem stage act.
When the two share the screen, it is a riveting thing to watch -- Sul and Ryu are in top form.
Throughout the interrogation scenes, the two are like hungry wolves -- circling each other and waiting for the other to slip up.
They spend significant time in silence -- assessing and sizing each other up through their cold stare.
And it is through these exchanges where the film becomes engrossing.
The film will most likely spark comparisons to the 1996 American film "Primal Fear" which was also a run-of-the-mill thriller boosted by the on screen chemistry between the two leads Richard Gere and Edward Norton as detective and suspected murderer.
Sul has played a law enforcement figure before in the hugely popular "Public Enemy" franchise as a bumbling simpleton.
Though Sul`s character in that film, Kang Chul-joong, was very much one-dimensional, there was something about Sul`s face and his performance that gave the character nuance and an endearing quality.
But here he does what he does best in portraying a man facing an ethical crossroads.
He is constantly at odds with himself -- hounded by the choice of playing the killer`s elaborate game that would ensure the safety of his missing daughter or acting within the guidelines of his role as an investigator.
The film does try to offer a glimpse into the intricate details of criminal pathology and forensic analysis -- all of which were clearly inspired by the popular American television program C.S.I. -- but ultimately, it becomes buried under the director`s insistence that those sequences look stylish and glossy.
The film opens nationwide in Korea on Jan. 7.
By Song Woong-ki