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‘The Merciless’ is a bromance with style

Cannes-bound crime flick unsettles with startling twists

Style was what director Byun Sung-hyun wanted to focus on when filming “The Merciless,” which has been invited to the midnight category at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, taking place from May 17-28.

“The reason I paid so much attention to mise-en-scene is because in Korean cinema in recent years, there have been, and there will continue to be, so many crime movies led by two male characters,” said Byun at a press preview of the film in Wangsimni, Seoul, Tuesday.

“I wanted to differentiate my film through style.”

Meticulous camerawork is prominent in the director’s snazzy piece, starring veteran actor Seol Kyung-gu (“Lucid Dream,” 2017) as criminal gang leader Han Jae-ho and Im Si-wan (“One Line,” 2016) as the reckless young delinquent Jo Hyun-soo.

Scenes are shot from the perspective of the characters as they lie on the floor after being shot, or kidnapped and stifled with a bag over the head. The lens peers down from the sky into a red convertible where the characters sit, at one point in ecstasy and at another in a painful stupor. Violence is depicted in flat pictures, created through the use of walls and symmetry.

“I worked very closely with the art director,” said Byun. “Instead of writing the plot separately, we had lengthy discussions and I would say what kind of spaces I wanted.”

The film dashes back and forth in time tracing the two characters as they meet in prison, team up after their release to smuggle drugs, and are followed by a covert police operation that is revealed in the most sudden of twists.

“The highlight of an undercover movie is the anxiety of whether (the undercover character) will get caught or not,” said Byun. “But I decided to skip that part.” 

A still from “The Merciless” features Im Si-wan (left) and Seol Kyung-gu. (Hohoho Beach)
A still from “The Merciless” features Im Si-wan (left) and Seol Kyung-gu. (Hohoho Beach)

Jeon Hye-jin plays the detective in charge, a charismatic female figure who chases criminals.

Seol plays the role of Jae-ho with a gusto reminiscent of the actor’s 2000s heyday, infusing the maniacal drug smuggler with pathos. Jae-ho stares at his victims in the eyes when murdering them and lets out a high-pitched cackle, but manages to remain intensely human.

He first sees Hyun-soo pummeling an opponent twice his size in a prison cafeteria brawl, and enjoying himself in the process. Thinking the reckless young inmate to be as psychopathic as himself, Jae-ho naturally approaches him.

The criminal Hyun-soo is vulnerable, intelligent and multifariously portrayed by actor Im. The two characters begin a criminal partnership that is at times precarious and at times almost heartfelt, based on both suspicion and a yearning to trust one another. 

Seol Kyung-gu (left) and Im Si-wan attend the press preview of “The Merciless” at CGV Wangsimni in Seoul on Tuesday. (Hohoho Beach)
Seol Kyung-gu (left) and Im Si-wan attend the press preview of “The Merciless” at CGV Wangsimni in Seoul on Tuesday. (Hohoho Beach)

Though packaged as a prison crime action flick, the film’s heart is in the relationship between the two characters. Director Byun went so far as to call it not just a “bromance,” but an actual romance.

“I kept telling the actors during filming that this is a romance, more melodrama than noir.”

A Seoul Institute of Arts graduate, director Byun’s focus so far has been Korea’s youth lifestyle and culture. His films include 2010 hip-hop-themed “The Beat Goes On” and 2012 romantic comedy “Watcha Wearin’?”

“The Merciless” additionally stars Kim Hee-won, who will be attending the Cannes festival along with Seol and director Byun. It remains to be seen whether Im will be able to leave the country to attend the event due to his yet unserved military obligations.

The film will open in local theaters May 18.

By Rumy Doo (