The revenge sub-genre is a pretty straightforward one despite its numerous variations. Rape/revenge used to be the go to, but recent years have seen a migration over to movies about people seeking vengeance for the murder or abduction of their loved ones. No one really misses the former — despite Coralie Fargeat’s fantastically entertaining and beautiful Revenge (2017) — but few are all that excited by the numerous Taken (2007) riffs filmmakers have delivered over the past decade. South Korean director Lim Kyeong-taek‘s debut hopes to stand out by mashing the two together, but for every beat that works in No Mercy two more stumble in familiarity and sleaze.
In-ae (Lee Si-young) is a champion martial artist who’s just been released from prison. She used her skills on a bad man a couple years back and has paid the price, and all she wants now is to be reunited with her mentally challenged younger sister Eun-hye (Park Se-wan). Unfortunately, the teenager has fallen in with the wrong crowd through no fault of her own resulting in her sexual assault and abduction. Pissed off and dressed for success, In-ae goes looking for her sister with the intention of leaving no stone or scumbag unturned.
Your mileage with No Mercy is going to depend on two things — how much you enjoy its action, and how much sexual assault you can stomach.
This isn’t The Accused (1989) or Irreversible (2002) with a long rape scene that acts as a centerpiece to the surrounding drama, and instead the assault scenes here all clock in under a minute. But when I say “scenes” I mean many scenes as poor Eun-hye is a seeming magnet for half the sexual predators in South Korea. They’re not graphic, but they are frequent as everyone from gangsters to shopkeepers have their way with the girl, and it’s an aspect of the film that long overstays its effectiveness. The repetitiveness leads to numbness, and when combined with the fairly common lack of cheer-worthy catharsis it can sometimes work against the film’s goal of entertaining exploitation.
That’s no small thing, but if you go in understanding and expecting its embrace of exploitation than the film’s strengths may win out in the end. The aforementioned action is key to that hopeful success, and all of it features In-ae at its center. Her martial arts style and skills aren’t flashy, and Lim makes no real effort to hyper-stylize and choreograph the fights in the manner of something like The Villainess (2017). Instead, the action sequences here are far more down and dirty and brawl-like in their execution. She’s not here to display prowess and flair as she simply wants her sister back meaning she’s in and out of fights as quickly as possible. It makes sense and is ultimately more realistic for it, but it means she leaves far more of these guys alive than you’d hope.
In-ae’s weapons of choice are her fists, legs, and stiletto heels, and as she works her way through the men in town — she’s basically tracking her sister one attacker at a time before moving onto the next guy she was passed to — she makes varying work of them. Lee isn’t necessarily a convincing fighter, but Lim creates a perfectly acceptable illusion through editing and stunt doubles meaning this often feels more like an American action movie than a South Korean one. Still, Lee is a charismatic and appealing actor, and she makes us care about her every move.
No Mercy is a sleazy, sweaty, exploitation-heavy riff on Taken with a bad-ass woman knocking out the men who dare stand in her way while she searches for her sister. If that premise appeals to you then you already know if the movie is your jam.