On the surface U-neun nam-ja/No Tears For the Dead in English simply looks like another polish Korean action film. Well that is correct, but the man behind it, director/writer Jeong-beom Lee is famous for doing a film named The Man from Nowhere (US English title). It was the highest grossest film in Korea in 2010, and gained international attention that only a handful of Korean films have reached. There’s a (as expected) Indian remake named Rocky Handsome set to release somewhere in 2016, and (typical reaction) an announce US remake of the film. With these remakes it’s safe to say The Man from Nowhere cemented its place in Korean, and action cinema. Another thing that occurred was it made Jeong-beom Lee a talent on everyone’s radar. Unless you’re Jee-woo Kim (I Saw the Devil), Joon Ho Bong (Gwoemul), or Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) the Western world will more than likely forget great filmmakers if they fail to follow up on their success. If they do prove their big hit wasn’t a fluke, than they might get a call from Hollywood to direct a film in English language production. Jeong-beom Lee won’t join the likes of his other peers as No Tears For the Dead is not a good film, let alone one that comes close to matching half of the traits that many loved about The Man From Nowhere.
No Tears for the Dead is about a hit man traumatized from accidentally killing a young girl during a job, and is given the mission to eliminate her mother. The killer for hire who becomes remorseful is a premise that grants leeway in exploring themes, and character traits that would otherwise be ignored in the action genre. Aspects like the protagonist becoming accustomed to taking lives, addressing how the character views change on the matter on killing growing older, and in some instance showing an inability put it behind them for a normal life. These are aspects for these kind of characters could be explored helping to create an action film that could be more meaningful than good guys killing bad guys. However, an hour into the film you’ll realize nothing within that span of time ends up becoming meaningful. For the first hour, the film is more in line of a drama setting up the pieces before changing gear into an action film for its later half. What is problematic about this is, within the first ten minutes, the film relays the information of what’s protagonist Gon (Dong-gun Jang) has to find for his boss, and that Gon is guilty about murdering an innocent child. Scenes beyond these ten minutes beat you over the head with the fact Gon feels guilty for killing a child. If you didn’t understand within the first ten minutes of the film then the film will dedicate an hour to make sure you get plot point.
Gon guilt over killing a child isn’t contemplative in the way it’s written. There is one flashback inserted into the film that show Gon past, and his drug addicted mother (Kim Ji-Sung). What purpose this flashback serve is not clear as Gon decision on whether or not to kill the mother, Mo-Kyung (Kim Min-hee), is determined by his past experiences. There isn’t any monologue, nor a discussion he has with the other characters as to why he made the decision that he did. The most that get elaborated on this is Gon saying “I’m tired”, but exactly what aspect of his old ways he’s tired off doesn’t come across plainly. Before Gon utter those words he kills a couple of people, and after uttering those words one would assume Gon stops killing for the remainder of the film. Except for the fact Gon makes a bomb to take out one of the goons who is trying to kill him which derails that possibility. So even when grasping at straws there’s no depth to the theme the film brings up on redemption, and killing. Another aspect of this writing that fell through was lacking scenes incorporating Gon with his mother. His mother is never given a name, never shows what led his mother to the situation she’s in, and how this led to Gon becoming a gun for hire. As a character, Gon mother has little value in the story, and as a plot device isn’t developed further then when it’s introduced.
Then there’s the interaction between Gon, and Mo-Kyung which instead of building on what’s established only reiterates the same point in the first hour. Gon is guilt ridden for killing Mo-Kyung’s daughter, and Mo-Kyung is dealing with it in her own way. Their interaction could have developed them both into more complex characters, but alas it does not. Aside when Gon, and Mo-Kyung meet in an elevator there’s no scenes of them interacting like regular people. Gon observe Mo-Kyung from the sidelines. Having already mentioned the lack of monologue preventing an understanding of what Gon is thinking leads to pure speculations. Connecting loose dots while stimulating does not amount to much if there’s nothing concrete to connect them together. Gon does have a complete character arc, but there’s not much to his character. The whys he suddenly feel guilty about taking lives is left blank, as well as other aspects of his character. Other issues also include the script making a big deal of the desired item in question when found being made into a big deal when it reveals, even though the first ten minutes confirmed what the item is, and who likely has it. A subplot involving the police ends up contributing little to the story as well as other characters whom contribute little in the long run. The second half of the film is more like an action movie, but the lack of emotional resonate from the buildup makes the ensuing violence lacking in weight to what was presented. It’s first half got across it does not want to be a piece of mindless action which conflicts with the brainless approach in viewing the film second half. Then there’s the film’s ending which plays against expectation. It’s a good ending completing Gon arc, though the other underdeveloped elements prevent from staying in the mind.
Now time for some actual compliments for what the film did correctly. Starting with the man behind it Jeong-beom Lee. He’s confident in his craft which is evident throughout the film. His selection of shots, with the help of cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, gives the film a sleek look. There’s also good stunt work, and fight choreography in the action sequences. Jeong-beom knows how to film action, and using shaky cam accordingly. Usually adding to an action scene than obscure the set piece. Another aspects of these action sequences is they come mostly in the form of hand to hand to combat. While some of the scenes require leap in logic when it comes to how characters survive none of the action sequences suffer any serious issues. There’s a fight scene that has actor Jang Dong-gun fighting in a small hallway that is very inventive. Using the small space to create a sense of enclosure, and Jang Dong-gun character skill in hand to hand combat to convincingly turn an outnumbered fight in his favor. The one set piece that emphasizes gun fighting is staged elaborately. Usually in gun fights you’ll have the duck, and cover approach which is boring if not done right. However, Jeong-beom Lee one only gun fight makes use of the actors moving across the environment besides narrowly dodging bullets. Jeong-beom made sure to show one character shooting while going to cover, and the person who being shot at not testing his luck for a kill. The gun fight also have the actors moving to different level of a single building visually adding a nice change in scenery in the set piece. Lee makes the right choice to keep the action sequences small, and manageable never going to big making them work as well as they do. As a director, Jeong-beom does nothing wrong from the selection of music that fits the tone, to editing action sequences to make as coherent and wisely framed as possible, and putting trust faith into his crew which shows through out with good production values.
Leading actor Jang Dong-gun is the best part of the film. His performance is complex putting his all into his character. Coming across as both a no non-sense assassin in body movement, and getting across he’s a troubled soul through his eyes. Never once in the film is Jang Dong-gun afraid to reveal the more emotional side of his character. Dong-gun performance is more compelling than the actual film. There’s several scenes in the film where Dong-gun is silent, but thanks to the way be expresses himself through facial expressions, and body movement what his character feels comes across clearly. He also performs in the action sequences convincingly not being afraid to take a couple of hits. Regardless of what Jang Dong-gun is shown doing on screen he’s the easily the best actor in the film.
Kim Min-hee has the second largest role in the film. Her character visibly goes through more series of emotions. For the first hour of the film nothing about her performance is noticeable since her character is all over the place, and Kim Min-hee is unable to make her character come across as putting up a facade like the writing intended. However, pass the forty minute mark of the film Min-hee shows a gradual mental downfall of her character. Slowly showing her character becoming broken in her state.
Supporting cast includes the likes of Brian Tee whose solid in his role. Tee is simply meant to be the adversary to the hero of the film, and nothing more. For the role, Tee is also convincing in his performance in the action scenes he’s in. Anthony Dilio is plays one of Tee’s henchman, though the only noteworthy thing about his performance is speaking in Korean, English, and Spanish (only in scene) in a single movie. Dilio only meant to look tough aesthetically. Same thing applies to Alessandro Coumo who is only aesthetically needed for his small role. Byun Yo-han, and Jun-Seong Kim deliver one note in his performance which fine because of the characters they play. Not so much for Jun-Seong Kim who has more screen time making his lacked in varied expressions noticeable. Finally, there’s Kim Hee-Won who shines in the final act of the film, though doesn’t leave much of impression anywhere else in the film.
No Tears for the Dead (2014) has a polish look, and good set pieces, but hampered down by bad writing, and actors who are unable to elevate the material. It has good setup to create meaningful characters, and has the desire to provoke the viewers unlike your average action film, but sadly aimless writing, humorless story, lack of depth presented in its theme, and lack of emotional resonates makes the entire film self-conflicting for the whole run. No matter what way you attempt to view the film from there’s always more issues than positives in the writing. It’s too serious to be entirely brainless, but it’s lack depths to punch the viewer with a series of emotions like it wanted. Dong-gun Jang, and the action sequences are the only consistently high quality aspect of the films, but whenever one isn’t on screen the film is unable to stand as strongly. Despite the conflicting material, Dong-gun Jang performance was a highlight of the film no matter what he was doing. Unfortunately, the good qualities wasn’t enough to save the film from being a messy film that couldn’t live up to its potential.