Judge Joel Pearce is never taking a taxi again in his life.
Enough is enough.
For the most part, No Blood No Tears has been talked about as a female revenge movie, something along the lines of a Korean Thelma and Louise. While it certainly does have tough women who fight back against abuse, that's only one small part in a labyrinthine plot that spans much of the Korean underworld.
Facts of the Case
Su-ji (Hye-yeong Lee, Low Life) used to be a criminal, but now she owes a bunch of money thanks to a no-good ex-husband, and she drives taxi to try to pay up. She runs into Kyeong-seon (Do-yeon Jeon, Untold Scandal), the girlfriend of a tough, abusive former boxer who helps run a dogfighting ring. Kyeong-seon convinces Su-ji to help her steal some money, for her own revenge and to help pay off the debts. Of course, not everything goes as planned…
While director Ryu Seung-wan's work has often been compared to Tarantino, No Blood No Tears reminds me a lot more of early Guy Ritchie. It has a similar energy and a complex collection of corrupt cops and gangsters—ranging from highly capable to entertainingly useless. The first half of the film is a giant wind-up of tension, as plans are built, relationships are sorted out, and alliances are tenuously formed. During the second half, it all unwinds, only partially in the way we expect.
I don't want this to sound like a simple clone of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, though, because the tone of No Blood No Tears is significantly different. While Guy Ritchie's work is often violent and brutal, the action is tempered by a good-natured humor that softens the impact of what's happening on-screen. Ryu Seung-wan's underworld is one of viciousness as well as irony, and there's a mean streak that runs through the whole production. The women here get beat up as roughly as the men, and nobody is protected from pain and suffering.
The performances are excellent. Hye-yeong Lee was a big actress in the '80s, and she's been given a Pam Grier-style resurrection as the tough taxi driver. There are standout performances from a few other characters, including the nearly unstoppable abusive boyfriend. The fight between him and a quiet-talking thug is one of the best I've seen in quite a while, and stands out particularly in the realm of Korean cinema, which has never been noted for its martial arts action. Films like this rarely evoke feelings of pathos, but the characters in No Blood No Tears never exist in simple service of the story. It makes the unpredictability work better than it should.
The other thing that needs to be highlighted is the cinematography, which is endlessly inventive and shows the perfect balance between raw passion and style. No Blood No Tears never feels overly flashy, but it has a level of energy that is usually only reached by new directors who are willing to break all the rules. While a few of the chase sequences don't belong at the top of the genre, the fight scenes are shot with such motion that the audience feels trapped right in the middle of the chaos. Overall, it's a blast to experience.
Genius Products has done a fine job with this release, delivering easy to read subtitles and a lively 5.1 sound mix in the original Korean. The image quality shows the graininess of the original without any noticeable transfer flaws, and the film's rich dark look is replicated perfectly. There are no extras on the disc, but I suppose that's forgivable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As is often the case with foreign releases, I have some issues with the presentation of the packaging and menus. The cover shows both lead actresses (badly Photoshopped) with guns, even though neither of them ever uses one. The back cover proclaims that: "These girls don't cry…they get even," which won't attract the attention of the right audience. Serious viewers that will appreciate the mixture of tough action, humor and virtuoso cinematography will probably be turned off by the seemingly exploitative cover, and those who are drawn by the cover will likely be disappointed the actual film.
If you are a fan of lurid underworld sagas, Guy Ritchie, or Korean films, No Blood No Tears needs to find its way onto your must-see list. For many others, the viciousness of the violence will drown out the charm of its dark humor, and you may want to look elsewhere for your chick vengeance fix. Overall, though, it arrives as a pleasant surprise, a joyous peek back to the risk-taking of Korean cinema in the earlier part of the decade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
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