One of the things that society tries to rationalize in the modern age is the existence of evil. Hours upon hours of work is done by media, psychiatrists and no small number of average people to try to explain why certain events happen and sometimes the answer is simply because someone wishes it to happen. Sometimes the answer is simple but sometimes there is no answer. No Mercy operates under auspices of being a psychological thriller where its main lead, Kang Min-ho (set up as a lauded Medical Examiner) suddenly finds his plans for retirement thrown into chaos when his daughter is abducted upon her return to Korea after living in America for years. The most shocking element seems to come from the fact that the kidnapper looks to be connected to Lee Seo-young, an environmentalist who just admitted to a brutal murder and dismemberment case but who is challenging Kang to get him released if Kang ever hopes to see his daughter again. As Kang now dances seemingly at the whims of this madman who is still in a holding cell, Kang has to weigh the value of everything in his life versus the worth of his daughter as he scrambles to try to get Lee off the hook while also trying to find clues that may allow him to find his daughter without helping the admitted murderer as he dodgesaround those who would be his erstwhile allies as he frantically attempts to save his daughter.
No Mercy is a rather fitting title for the feature as it seems to greatly enjoy putting its characters into some rather rough, tense and psychological punishing corners while showing no amount of pity on the audience that it is dragging along for every painful and heavy step along the way. The film uses relationships to bind its characters together in a way that helps the audience relate to the struggles that they go through, most obviously in the father-daughter relationship that has Kang willing to risk everything for secure his daughters return but also in a mentor relationship Kang has with Min Seo-young, a rookie detective he once taught and whose insights have helped the case forward but no less important is the twisted relationship he comes to have with Lee, the man he believes to hold his daughter’s fate in his hands. It is in Kang’s desperation to keep one step ahead of the detectives on the case that the tension really begins to build as Kang constantly finds himself in danger from the law as he attempts to match wits with the one man who knows the location of his missing daughter and seems to treat the whole exercise as some sort of detached game as he maneuvers Kang around like a piece on a chess board.
The film really finds its stride though in presenting a more and more desperate Kang as he scrambles to try to both tamper with the minimum amount of evidence he can as he tries to buy time to save his daughter while not letting a murderer go free while his panic causes him to forgo trusting anyone else which increases both the feelings of isolation and impending doom that get conveyed to the audience. While the other detectives get wound up focused on proving the case against Lee only Min appears to notice the increasingly erratic behavior of Kang as the need for action leaves him no time to prepare and his desperation is causing him to make mistakes that may lead back to him.
Just for final measure though the film has one major wild card to play which will likely cast doubt in the audience about some of the assumptions they have made to date while also offering up an impossible moral dilemma that no one would want to face. This twist though turns out to reveal the greatest weakness in the film as well as the solution to the mystery of why Lee is doing this casts shadows on any easy condemnation of him as an emotionless monster but this connection to Kang feels like it lacks bite as the audience is never given a lot of time to become overly attached to him before his life turns to hell. While at first glance it may seem the almost half hour of build up should be enough to establish his character, the splitting of time between establishing him, Min and the case makes the task of endearing him to the audience harder while isolating him forces the actor to try to convey emotions more through actions than words. All this undercuts the final scenes a little as the shocking reveal about the motivation behind events feels to be missing some punch if the viewer hasn’t managed to bridge the gap to the character though the ending is one that no one who sees this film is likely to forget anytime soon, even if some of the particulars of the path along the way aren’t as fortunate. The film is definitely a dark journey exploring love and some of the forms it can take- including hate- and is a stunning if somewhat flawed look at people and the hell their actions can create.