No Blood, No Tears Review
With indie flick Die Bad having performed remarkably well at the Seoul box office in 2000, having been made through pure sweat and blood and a miniscule budget, director Ryoo Seung-wan was given the go ahead to direct his first major commercial feature: No Blood, No Tears at the age of 29. The dubbed “wonderkid” proved to be a pioneering force at the turn of the new millennium as far as Korean movie making was concerned. He showed that small budgets don’t mean small pictures and in comparison to Hollywood features, in which actors are paid ridiculous amounts of money and special effects are all the rage, No Blood, No Tears stands as a model piece of work, under which production moguls might want to take note.
The story concerns Gyung-seon (Lee Hye-young), a former safe-cracker who now struggles to make end meet as a taxi driver, thanks to her husband running off and leaving her a massive debt. Try as she might to get by, she’s relentlessly hounded by loan sharks who continually threaten her unless she pays back her husband’s debt with accumulated interest. One evening Gyung-seon’s car his hit by a sports car being driven by a young women named Soo-jin (Jeon Do-yeon), an aspiring pop singer who wishes to flee her life and her abusive boyfriend Dok-bul (Jung Jae-young). After a rocky start Soo-jin befriends Gyung-seon and they gradually learn a little about each other. Eventually Soo-jin offers her new friend a way out of her poor predicament, if she agrees to help her pull off a dangerous scam. Dok-bul, a former boxer, now runs an underground dog-fighting ring and Soo-jin arranges a seemingly perfect trap, from which she’ll escape with a bag of money. But soon she and Gyung-seon will find themselves on the run, and with few places to go.
Despite its heavy mainstream financing, No Blood, No Tears has all the hallmarks of a pure Ryoo Seung-wan film; its sentiments come straight from the heart in that the young director had struggled himself up to his mid twenties, having lost his parents and sticking to menial, difficult work to finance his ambitions of being a film director. His 2002 effort, then, is perhaps the ultimate reflection on getting through life’s hardships, but while it certainly is critical it isn’t entirely specific toward Korean social aspects. Its characters represent people across the globe, and its situations are also highly reflective with changing world aspects as old school divisions are inevitably filtered out in favour of a young generation. These subtle nods thus allow it to appeal to a far wider audience.
A larger budget doesn’t stop Ryoo Seung-wan from sticking to what he knows best, bringing back friends and family members, this time alongside A-listers. In that respect No Blood, No Tears means a whole lot more, telling a tale of people’s struggles, as performed by few who themselves had journeyed along the difficult path. Significantly this brings into play the casting of Lee Hye-young who had been away from screens for seven years and would now take on a major lead part; this was also a moment in which dominant female roles were starting to become a normal occurance in South Korean cinema, next to their male counterparts. While a large majority of Korean films, notably comedies, satirize how females are the downtrodden members of society, directors such as Ryoo Seung-wan, Cho Jing-gyu (My Wife is a Gangster) and Hyun Nam-seob (who also broke out in 2002 with the overlooked Bae Doo-na vehicle Saving My Hubby) choose to show the complete turn around with effortless retaliation. Seung-wan isn’t leading a defiant rally against taboo issues; it’s perhaps neither here nor there that his lead protagonists are women fighting back against their oppressors, though they certainly warrant discussion in light of the fact that he didn’t always intend for female leads in the first place. It simply brings back to light a sense of equality, which was sadly lacking for a long time.
It’s quite amusing then that Ryoo Seung-wan would earn criticism for approaching No Blood, No Tears similarly to Tarantino and Guy Ritchie’s efforts, and while the director acknowledges this comparison and his love for neo-noir in general, going so far as to create his own genre term “Pulp-Noir”, he instils his production with his own unique individuality, and upon each release its more and more apparent that his films carry their own depth, rather than being simple pastiches, homage’s or piss takes of well established genre types. It’s quite difficult to actually acknowledge No Blood, No Tears under this sole moniker of the rather gimmicky Pulp-Noir phrase; a mesh of western and Hong Kong genres, old and new, it takes influence from a number of productions in terms of setting and story; using the popular westernised approach in rearranging narrative flow and echoing traditional martial arts aesthetics, also thanks to the director’s love for Jackie Chan and John Woo’s heroic bloodshed movies. And this is a style that Seung-wan has developed over the years, finding a comfortable solution through which to tell his tales and get across his intentions. His action aids the story telling, and this is evident in every one of his features that primarily depict the inner struggle of poor citizens.
Violence has long been a staple tradition in Ryoo Seung-wan’s films, but its purpose is in exactly highlighting the fight for survival, rather than using it as means to excite the viewer who is simply after a quick fix, although 2004’s Arahan could certainly be seen as the exception to this rule. In No Blood, No Tears his action focuses on the repercussion of violence, from the drastic use of misogynistic beatings that the lead characters of Gyung-seon and Soo-jin endure, to the sheer desperate acts of its hopeless debt-collector’s, greedy gangsters and tearaway youths. Nevertheless, Seung-wan doesn’t shy away from entertaining. As with Die Bad he presents a gritty nature to his action, though he does up the ante with far greater martial arts leanings. The washed-up boxer Dok-bul almost feels like a blueprint for the later role that Choi Min-shik took on in Crying Fist, who takes a different path toward trying to better his life, while Jung Doo-hong, the go-to-man when it comes to action choreography in South Korea, plays the mute henchman “Snake”, who quite easily becomes an ideal stock presence that can indeed be traced back to Jackie Chan’s old-school revenge flicks featuring ambiguous and slowly built up villains. Again there’s little elegance to the action, though it’s notably choreographed far more stylistically than in his more realistic Die Bad debut. The direction is fairly loose and quick cutting, showing us plenty of impact but foregoing the desire to present the overall efforts as being truly beautiful. It’s hard hitting and quite numbing, but also an interesting experiment from the man who would subsequently go completely for broke with Crying Fist’s stunningly staged matches.
Furthermore, No Blood, No Tears is an amusing picture. It’s filled with its fair share of bumbling characters and dark comedy, which at the very least shows Ryoo Seung-wan as still being able to have fun with his underlying social themes. Much of the feature balances this well, with some fun political puns as displayed through the “United Handicapped Democrats”, though arguably toward the final act there are instances in which he becomes carried away with the exploits of his brother Ryoo Seong-bum (who he always casts in his films) and thus threatens to slow down and even hamper proceedings. But any such quibbles are minor and for the most part No Blood, No Tears proves to be riveting feature from a remarkably self assured director. Ryoo Seung-wan knows exactly what he wants and as is often the case he usually achieves it as well, which is why he remains one of the most interesting action directors working in South Korea today.
As seems to be the normal approach for Third Window Films the menu designs once again reflect the film’s country of origin. It’s a very nice little touch, with Korean characters and English words alternating on screen. Subtitle options are placed in the extra features section, which I’m told will be rectified in future.
Transfer wise No Blood, No Tears is another decent effort from Third Window Films, although it’s to be noted that it is a standards conversion. That aside we’re looking at what appears to be the same source used for the South Korean release a few years back. It is a dark film for the most part, so not an easy one to transfer: contrast is a little high, which isn’t surprising when looking at most Asian films on DVD, and some of it is intentional, as seen in a couple of outdoor shots, while blacks are pretty good, if a little flat. Flesh tones appear to be adequate, perhaps a little over saturated at times, while the rest of the colour scheme is handled well, given some dingy locations throughout.
Korean DD2.0 is the only audio track available and while it lacks a much needed punch with regards to the rear speakers picking up heavy action it delivers a capable enough experience in delivering some ambient effects. Dialogue is slightly subdued through the central channel, so may require volume levels to be turned up a little, but there’s nothing in the way of distortion or drop outs.
Not a great deal on offer, but we do get the theatrical trailer for the film, in addition to fifteen minutes of interviews and the usual Third Window Films trailer reel.
Jeon Do-yeon talks about the ins and outs of her character and how she approached the role, coming across as a very lovely woman with a bubbly sense of humour. Lee Hye-young discusses the appeal of her character and the way in which the Korean film industry has changed over the years, in addition to talking about her experience working with Ryoo Seung-wan. Next up is Jeong Jae-young, who also chats about how he approached the role, along with influences coming from the likes of Robert De Niro. He also speaks highly of his co-star Jeon Do-yeon and a little about the powerful nature of the film. Ryoo Seung-bum talks about his character Choi Min-soo and his pleasurable experience in continually working with his brother, while indeed Ryoo Seung-wan makes an appearance to describe what his film is about, why he chose to use women and what pulp-noir actually means. He closes by discussing the fight sequences and listing his favourite scenes.
Ryoo Seung-wan’s second feature film is another stylish effort in blending action and social values, featuring a great leading cast and an obvious amount of personal adoration toward the genre. It’s nice to see Third Window Films continue to pick up some of these new wave Korean titles for the UK market, which might otherwise have remained slightly overlooked.