Greed, violence and ruthlessness; gangsters who will stop at nothing and the little people caught in their web of corruption — struggling to survive and always hoping for escape to a better life.
These are the themes and elements that make up Korean director, Ryoo Seung-wan's first commercially financed film since his small-scale debut, "Die Bad" (2000), put his name on the map in Korean cinema. The visual aesthetic is appropriately dark and gritty, but Ryoo Seung-wan's directorial style is infused with showy pyrotechnics, and the script lightens the turmoil of its characters' predicament with streaks of brash humour. This heady mixture of threatening, pumped-up violence and casual wit has led many a viewer to compare the film to the work of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Richie -- and, to be honest, they have a point — although, it could also be pointed out that Tarantino has been influenced by many of the same Hong Kong movies that were also a formative inspiration for Ryoo Seung-wan: the shadows of Jackie Chan and of John Woo's "Heroic Bloodshed" genre of action movie certainly loom large across this work in the relentless ultra-violence of its fight sequences. The flashy (and ultimately empty) jumpiness and over-egged humour that informs Guy Richie's "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) and also exhibits itself here with a relentless barrage of unnecessary freeze frames, voice-overs, flashbacks and split-frames, is an influence I could have done with a little less of though (I've never been a fan of Mr. Richie's brand of Post Tarantino Brit Gangster flick), as well as a similar cast of characters made up of small-time trackie wearing crooks. In fact, there are far too many characters in this film that seem to have been added simply for the sake of a succession of quick set-pieces that end up having no relation to the main plot and serve only to confuse the issue -- something already achieved all too well by Seung-wan's somewhat quirky "post-modern" narrative style.
Ryoo Seung-wan coins the phrase "Pulp-Noir" to describe the mix of influences at work here. The plot of the film (or at least, the one at the heart of things once you strip away all the clutter) is in the typical modern noir style which looks at the male dominated world of the "Film Noir" genre from the perspective of its minor female characters. Here, one can once again cite the influence of Tarantino, since "Jackie Brown" (1998) and "Kill Bill" (2003/4) take a similar approach, placing sassy likeable females in a macho environment where violence can strike at any time. "No Blood, No Tears" combines the "female-friendship-in-the-face-of-male-brutality" theme of "Thelma and Louise" (1991) with a plot line straight out of "Jackie Brown".
Our female protagonists are Kyeong-seon (Lee Hye-yeong), a taxi driving ex-safe cracker whose husband has left her with a daughter to bring up and a huge gambling debt to pay off to some local loan sharks; and Su-Ji (Jeon Do-yeon), the "girly" girlfriend of an ex-boxer cum middle-ranking muscleman for a mafia gang who runs a dog fighting gambling circuit. Su-Ji dreams of becoming a pop star in Japan, but the regular beatings administered to her by the above-mentioned boyfriend, nicknamed 'Bulldog' (Jeong Jae-yeong), have left her with a scar under the eye that needs plastic surgery before she can even think about fulfilling this ambition!
Meanwhile, 'Bulldog' is himself under pressure from his ruthless gangster boss, and is about to be set up for a big fall. The separate lives of Kyeong-seon and Su-Ji become intertwined when Su-ji crashes Bulldog's sports car into Kyeong-seon's taxi after escaping from another of her boyfriend's vicious beatings. This initial encounter turns into a partnership when Su-jin draws her new friend (at first reluctantly, until the loan sharks threaten her daughter) into a plot to steal a bag full of money from Bulldog and his mafia employers, and run away to a new life in Japan. Naturally the whole plot goes horribly wrong through misunderstandings and mistiming, leading to a frenzied, bloodied punch-up in a derelict warehouse (shades of "Reservoir Dogs" here) between the two desperate women and a rampaging 'Bulldog'.
Derivative of Tarantino and Co., or not, "No Blood, No Tears" does at least manage to merge its humorous elements with some often shocking violence to disarming effect. This seems to be a trend in modern Korean cinema, but it doesn't always come off well (for instance "My Wife is a Gangster" (2001) attempted something similar, but the results were disjointed and crude); here, Ryoo Seung -wan mercilessly dishes out extreme violence at the fists of violent men to his female heroines with a relentlessness that probably wouldn't be tolerated in Western cinema (even "Kill Bill" relied on a hyper-real cartoon-like style to blunt the edge of its bloody female violence). For the most part, the film revels in its ironic pulpy ambience, but when the violence kicks in it is full on and, if anything, jacked-up for maximum shock effect.
The climactic showdown between elfin-faced Kyong-seon and the brutish Bulldog results in the charismatic actress's character taking a hideous succession of heavy-duty punches to the face, and this is just the last of a number of sequences in which both female characters experience regular abuse at the hands of men throughout the film. Fans of traditional Martial Arts films may be disappointed that, even when there is some shown (as in Bulldog's slap-down with the mafia assassin, 'Snake'.), Seung-wan chooses to shoot the fight scenes in clammy close-up rather than actually capture the moves in detail, but the desperate, crude and squalid nature of the violence justifies the decision, and, in the end, works in the films favour much better than a more formal approach would have done.
"No Blood, No Tears" is ultimately a well-made though sometimes confusing narrative, heavily derivative but with enough pizzazz to carry things off sufficiently well to keep the audience on its side for the duration. The violence towards women is extreme and brutish, but this is a tale of ordinary women battling against extreme odds and ultimately a tale of empowerment.
Third Window Films present the film in a perfectly adequate anamorphic transfer with a Korean DD2.0 soundtrack and removable English subtitles. Extras include trailers and interviews with the director and main stars.