Film review: The Merciless at Koffia

The Korean Film Festival in Australia (Koffia) is currently taking place. Addy Fong checked out The Merciless:

Rooted in the deep underpinnings of crime, Byun Sung-hyun’s The Merciless touches upon the male ego and its associations with brutality, masculinity and the lack of empathy that results from one’s desensitisation to violence in such a world. Through the use of a colour palate which employs blues, blacks and greys to help set the tone of the film, The Merciless leaves you questioning the loyalties of all of its characters and considering how we as an audience can also become desensitised to violence.

Set in the South-Korean crime world of drug deals, prison brawls and high risk crime, which seemingly provides great reward in return for actions of violence, there is something fishy (pun-intended) about both the motivations of characters within the film itself and the comedic use of a fishing exportation business as a ruse for the exportation of drugs offshore.

The film focuses on Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) and Hyun-soo (Im Si-wan), two men whose paths cross as the leader of a prison gang and a newly sentenced prisoner, who eventually develop a friendship after Hyun-soo’s merciful act of saving Jae-ho from an inmate’s shiv attack which nearly kills him. In return for this favour, Jae-ho takes on Hyun-soo as his protege teaching him all he knows and providing him with comfort upon hearing the news about the death of Hyun-soo’s mother. Hyun-soo’s grief over his mother’s death clouds his judgement hindering his interaction with others and who he chooses to trust. Jae-Ho’s criminal past makes us question his show of empathy to Hyun-soo whose youthful appearance makes him seemingly taken advantage of by Jae-Ho’s cunning and criminal ways.

By juxtaposing the merciful act of Hyun-soo saving Jae-Ho’s life with an incident that happens soon after, in which Jae-Ho tortures a fellow inmate to death, Byun Sung-hyun shows how the ruthlessness of crime and one’s long affiliation with it can change people. Sol Kyung-gu, who carries the look of a mature older father-figure, plays Jae-Ho, the experienced criminal and head of prison gang and Si-wan, known for his K-pop status, is an young attractive man who plays Hyun-soo, whose character draws upon on his youthful looks to keep his true intent hidden. The film is an intriguing tale, revealing information regarding both of the leads as the film progresses in a series of recollections which reveal more of what we have seen, letting us know that the story is more complicated than it appears.

The Merciless speaks of the lack of mercy criminals show in a self-centred display of male ego and dominance. All characters, the majority being men, use situations to benefit themselves, for their own political gain and personal interests. Whether it be the lavish lifestyles the criminals lead, the conversations and comparisons to male anatomy, or the prison brawls which represent a physical display of masculinity, the film confirms to the stereotypical representation of what it means to be male within a world of crime. Although it is usual to expect an action crime film to conform to these beats because they are easy to follow, there should be considerations made as to the reasoning for this; whether the scripting of male characters with brutal and senseless personalities is crafted out of convenience or thoughtfully done to fit the world they belong to.

This is a film which seemingly appeals to the male gaze, with one of the opening scenes showing Hyun-soo released from prison and making his way to a red convertible where he makes out with an attractive western woman in a tight dress in the backseat whilst Jae-Ho speeds down a highway with his shades on. To me, this is such a stereotypical image of what could appeal to the male fantasy, the objectification of women and the thrill of criminal behaviour, a rush of pleasure associated with breaking the law and performing actions which may be forbidden. Regardless of gender, it seems strange to consider how the simple act of watching criminal brutality being performed can seemingly provide pleasure and appeal to our senses.

The grotesque violence and at times over the top action acts as visual stimuli when paired with high-energy action sequences and, edited to a high-paced soundtrack, make The Merciless an enjoyable film to watch because it feels slick and fun to consume without much afterthought. I found the characterisation of the two leads to be quite cleverly done, a strength of Korean action films, where the representation of male dominance is shown both physically in the form of male aggression and politically where class ranking and wealth matters to those fighting to be on top.

The eighth Korean Film Festival in Australia travels around the country throughout August and September. For schedules, tickets and film information, head to



Review by Addy Fong.