This year’s KOFFIA festival opened with a bang, with director Ryoo Seung-wan presenting his huge hit from last year, The Unjust — an action thriller in which policemen, prosecutors and property developers are caught in an endless cycle of corruption. A couple of days into the festival, as part of their Bloody Friday match-up, the KOFFIA team programmed another Ryoo film: 2002’s No Blood No Tears.
As with the opening film, director Ryoo himself got up on stage and introduced the picture, somewhat sheepishly explaining that it had been his second film back when he was just finding his feet as a filmmaker. “It’s torture for me to watch it now,” he said, smiling, before hoping that we would enjoy it and disappearing up the stairs.
Gyung-sun (Lee Hye-young) drives a taxi on the night shift, and has a bit of a hair trigger: she’s perfectly willing to wade into a confrontation with a dodgy customer and throw a fist when the situation demands it. The job doesn’t look like much of an earner, but she needs it: her husband’s run off, and she needs the money to pay a group of gangsters who are trying to collect on his debts. She’s got history in the criminal underworld, but she’s trying to go straight nowadays.
One day, she meets Soo-jin (Jeon do-youn), a younger woman with aspirations who’s caught in a vicious abusive relationship with Bulldog (Jeong Jae-yeoung). Bulldog’s a mean drunk and a former-boxer-turned-thug who runs an illegal dog-fighting ring for Kim Geum-bok aka KGB (Shin Goo), the ruthless don of this particular picture.
KGB’s illegal fights involve a great deal of cash changing hands, and Soo-jin and Gyung-sun hatch a plot to make off with the whole bag at once, right under Bulldog’s nose. The only trouble is, several other parties are interested in the loot that same evening, including a gang of rather ineffectual lads led by director Ryoo’s brother, Ryoo Seung-beom.
No Blood No Tears is a caper film, but more in tune with Quentin Tarantino and Guy Richie’s work than the film noirs of old. It’s absolutely packed with characters: as well as all the people above, we’ve got policemen, a collection of ageing gangsters, and KGB’s incredibly efficient (and completely silent) enforcer, played by the film’s action director Jung Doo-hong. And like The Unjust (and Tarantino and Richie’s films), the story brims with diversions, rather than setting the focus squarely on the heist: there are some funny scenes, especially from the gangsters trying to collect from Gyung-sun, and loads of action.
And (unsurprisingly given Jung Doo-hung’s involvement as action director) it’s the action that stands out in this film. Ryoo did say during his introduction that there would be some violence, and he wasn’t kidding: almost every major character squares up to someone with a glint in their eye and a weapon in one hand, and there’s a great deal of flying lead and flashing knives. Some of these fight scenes — particularly those involving Jung’s silent enforcer — are very well-choreographed and shot, and it’s clearly something Ryoo does well. Audiences unused to seriously hard-hitting action, though, might have a bit of trouble: it’s a lot of physical violence, and there’s no heroic context to give it some gloss or justification. There’s definitely a gritty realism to scenes where Bulldog drunkenly attacks Soo-jin in the street, but that doesn’t make them easy to watch.
What is nice to see, though, is the art direction and photography. No Blood No Tears definitely has a distinctive look, filled with night scenes and detailed, dimly-lit interiors, and Ryoo uses this noir setting to great effect. The performances are also largely good, particularly worldly, resigned Gyung-sun. If I had to fault anything, it’s the fact that Gyung-sun and Soo-jin are often overshadowed by Bulldog and the Silent Man, despite being the leads. Ultimately, this is because the balance of action film and heist film here tilts towards the former, and the two women tend to come off second-best against the boxer and the professional killer.
No Blood No Tears is a dark but entertaining film, and it was a treat to get a look at the earlier work of a director who’s at the top of his game right now.