[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] No Mercy Has a Particular Set of Skills
A silver gray Mustang bursts onto the screen with loud thumping music and quick closeups as it pulls into a auto shop parking lot. The door opens to reveal red shoes, blood-stained ankles and a bright red knee-high dress. The woman gets out of the car, struts into the auto shop garage, grabbing a sledge hammer that she drags along the floor toward an unsuspecting man working under a car. “Is Mr. Oh here?” she asks and he rolls out a little from the car to stare up her dress and say it’s him.
And bang. She swings the sledgehammer down as the credits open.
This audacious opening is only the beginning of the vengeance that Inae (Lee Si-young) inflicts on a whole roster of skeevy and sadistic assholes through the slight 90 minute runtime of No Mercy. Recently released from prison, where she was serving an 18 month sentence for beating up a man in self-defense, Inae’s excited to see her sister. Oh, and the man she beat up, who had a knife? He got only 6 months. Men getting away and women having to pay is a theme that’s given cursory examination in Director Lim Kyeong-tack and Writer Kim Min’s script.
Inae is a tough, former martial arts champion but because of her sentence, she’s finds herself unhireable. While she was imprisoned, her young sister Eunhye (Park Se-wan), who has some form of disability, has had to fend for herself against bullies and worse. But she’s incredibly excited to see her big sister, finally. It’s never examined, but it seems like their parents are probably dead. Out of the picture, at the very least. At school, the vulnerable Eunhye gets roped into a scam where a group of teenaged boys use underaged girls to blackmail pedophiles. But when one of them turns out to be more dangerous that the boys imagine, he kidnaps Eunhye with plans to make her disappear.
Meanwhile, Inae quickly realizes something is wrong and sets out on a bloody path to find her sister, regardless of the cost.
No Mercy operates at the corner of exploitation films and action films, with a touch of political noir thrown in. The subject matter is pure exploitation and it’s also incredibly uncomfortable at times. This is a movie about pedophiles and sadistic men exploiting women and girls for sexual profit. And when you consider that Eunhye is both underaged and with some sort of learning disability, it makes the already gross subject matter grosser. It reminds me of what I wrote in my review of Revenge, that whenever you have a female character hellbent on revenge it’s usually because of a missing/killed family member or sexual violence.
No Mercy has both.
The film has a kinetic feel, as the story races from sadistic asshole to sadistic asshole, with Inae exacting her violent revenge. It obviously will remind viewers of Taken and Inae more than shows that she possesses a similar set of particular skills. The action is filmed and choreographed really well and what I appreciated the most was the messiness of the violence. It doesn’t feel staged or faked. It feels completely improvised and messy in the best way.
An early standout set piece involves a claustrophobic long-take knife fight in a car, as the camera stays outside, capturing the action from all angles as the fight moves throughout the small car. All of the fights are up close and personal and Lee Si-young steals the movie with the physicality of her acting. She also brings an intense apathy to the violence she visits on fingers. And hands. And necks.
Narratively, the story is a convoluted mess. No trope goes unexplored. It pulls from noir, as the story gets bigger and grander conspiracies start to unravel that makes it about more than just a simple kidnapping. And as she moves from target to target, she starts getting involved in more political machinations that of course go straight to the top. Copious flashbacks fill in the backstory and complicates what’s really going on, but it’s messily implemented. They exist solely to dole out exposition and sometimes its narrative beats that Inae couldn’t have known.
South Korea usually puts out amazing thrillers, but this one unfortunately didn’t always work for me. Mean-spirited and scuzzy, No Mercy will still thrill exploitation fans.