NO MERCY: Shocking, Ruthless and Brutal…Deservedly So
November 13, 2019
By Dr. Craig D. Reid
How do I explain the Lim Kyeong-taek directed revenge themed film No Mercy? I’ve seen over 10,000 martial arts (MA) movies in my life and 400+ in theaters, but I’ve never witnessed a MA film like the one featured at this year’s SDAFF. The audience was drop-pin silent, ne’er a laugh or a reaction. During the final credits, loud silence, no one left their seats. Credits over, complete darkness. Though when the lights awoke, the stunned crowd escaped the theater without saying a word or staring around looking at each, we couldn’t avoid the clutches of the pervading and unspeakable question, which is the film’s gruesomely uncomfortable storyline.
If you had a innocent, mentally-challenged teenage sister, who was taken advantage of, kidnapped, the police don’t really care, then you learn she’s being sexually abused by perverted teens, who pass her onto lewd older men fulfilling their fantasies and as each rapist protect their own butts and as well as the ones who had their way with the her before them…what would you do when you confront each one?
The doe-eyed In-ae (Lee Si-young) is a champion martial artist and sought after female bodyguard but due to her use of brutal payback tactics years ago against a nasty sleazebags, who deserved it, she was sent to prison. After serving her time and back home, she assures mentally challenged teenage sister, Eun-hye, body of a high school teen, mind of a 10-year-old, that she’ll never leave her alone again. Just as things are looking up In-ae is forced to face the earlier question as Eun-hye unwittingly falls in with the wrong crowd, gets sexually assaulted, physically abused and then abducted.
No Mercy is full of touchy subjects like school bullying, treatment of the mentally challenged, sex trafficking, exploitation of minors, law enforcement complacency and hubris, and the junctures between politics and criminals, which are often interchangeable.
Speaking to a blanched crowd at the Brussels International Film Festival, Lim points out, “I wanted to express the woman as a victim without avoiding that real expression of being a victim. Many films coming out of Korea have sexual inequality yet this film is about sexual equality.”
This is no more evident than in the fight scenes. There’s a wicked irony afoot. No Mercy, to me, has one of the worst MA trailers I’ve seen. Based on the action snippets splattered throughout, the fights look awful, the choreography pathetic, the lead actress horribly unskilled and fight poorly shot with tight angles, shaky camera, low light…in other word the way most American fight scenes are filmed. The crazy paradox of this film blew up in my face because stylistically the fights aren’t that good, they’re shot with tight close-ups and shaky cam, with low light and low creativity. Yet when you watch them it will stun the bejeebers out of you. I was speechless as was the whole audience.
What many may not notice is that the fashion model-looking Lee does all of her own fights. And trust me on this one, I have never seen a female beaten up so badly in a MA film before. I mean her head is rammed into the wall more times that a hammer hits a nail. In every fight, her body and face are rag dolled all over the place. And here’s that moment of equality, she uses the exact same kind of brutality against the men who are pulverizing here and it’s easy to believe that she can take it just as much as any man…yet more. It’s those moment of more that really make the film special, and she nails it ever time.
During a press event in Seoul earlier in the year, the demure Lee shared, “How to do the action scenes was my main concern. Director Lim suggested I learn jiu-jitsu, so I took lessons for three months in preparation for my role in the film. I trained hard to make it look real. As I once competed as a boxer, he expected me to show off my action skills”.
Trying to compare the action with the likes of any high budgeted MA production with eons of time to prepare and shoot the fights that feature the cream of the crop Chinese MA stars or even with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde (2017), who had a stunt double and during the famous oner fight used the cheat known as a Texas switch, is ludicrous. It’s like comparing a good college football team playing a pro-football team, both have the tools yet one obviously has more experience.
Armed with a sledgehammer, spiked heels and unprincipled brawling belligerence, In-ae’s taste for crushing men is explicit. At the end of the day, it’s the kind of film where you truly root for In-ae as you walk away internally glad and satisfied with what she did to all the evil, lurid, two-faced, sleazy female-disrespecting villains who got exactly what they deserved and with the hidden hope that if you had to face the film’s unsettling premise and given the opportunity…you’d do the same thing.