Startling shifts between post-modern comedy and brutal violence mark tyro writer-helmer Park Chulhee’s “No Mercy for the Rude” as an ultra-hip variation on the ever-popular Korean hit man subgenre. Crackerjack pace, absurdist set pieces and an intriguing lead perf by Shin Hakyun as a mute killer-for-hire have helped boost pic to solid local returns since its Aug. 24 opening, and rousing response at the Vancouver festival points to promising offshore returns at fests and upscale markets on both sides of the Pacific. If ever there were a Korean import aimed at Stateside auds and ready for the Tarantino seal-of-approval, this is it.
An early sign of the film’s strategy of unsettling the viewer is how anti-hero Killa (Shin, looking super-cool) narrates his story, even though he has long refused to talk until he gets an operation to fix a severe speech impediment. To pay for the operation, Killa has opted to work as an assassin, but the knife-wielding killer will only do in obnoxious, nasty targets.
Killa, who is a fan of bullfighting and seasoned oysters, rubs shoulders with a comely bar gal named She (Yoon Jihye) at his favorite late-night eatery/bar.
Although her early come-ons go nowhere, She and Killa soon bond and spend time rolling around in the sack and the kitchen. “No Mercy” may ostensibly be about an eccentric hit man, but it spends a good deal of time mining laughs from smartly staged, hilarious domestic situations.
Killa’s longtime pal Ballet (Kim Minjun) sometimes works as his second. Ballet specializes in dazzling terpsichorean footwork to match his weaponry, and is saving to open a dance school.
Park is unmistakably profiling a doomed hero, even as he tries to throw the viewer off with wildly jarring jolts in tonal shift from light to dark and back to light again. The technique comes dangerously close to feeling like an exercise in style, and some cute touches (as with a young boy who crosses paths with Killa) seem empty at the core.
But partly because Shin and Yoon work up loads of frisky friction and show great instincts as performers, “No Mercy for the Rude” ends up being more than just a snide, ironic dance of blood-letting. Pic attains a deliberately cynical overview, with Killa knocking off politicians, priests, businessmen and others who appear respectable but are actually hypocrites.
Pic looks great, with Park’s team of cinematographer Oh Seunghwan, production designer Kim Kwangsoo and editor Steve M. Choe creating a pulsating cinematic vision of nocturnal streets and alleys, along with amusingly mundane domestic interiors. Soundtrack, including Jeon Sangyoon’s original score, contains several pop-tinged covers of classics like “Bella Ciao” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”