Plenty of grief in No Tears for the Dead

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Starring Dong-Gun Jang and Min-Hee Kim. In Korean, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

I love a good heel-face turn: the moment when a bad guy realizes that he has a conscience after all, and is driven to join the side of goodness. It works in professional wrestling (whence the term emerged) and in movies about secretly goodhearted hit men like Leon, The Killer, and No Tears for the Dead, the new movie from South Korean thriller director Jeong-Beom Lee.

A bilingual feature set in both Korea and the USA, the movie starts with the assassination of a corrupt businessman by the ruthless Gon (Dong-Gun Jang). As in The Killer, collateral damage to an innocent bystander tips the veteran shooter into a moral crisis.

Given that the identities of the victims are revealed in the promotional material, it is not a spoiler to say that the accidental target is a young child, and that her grieving mother, Mogyeong (Min-Hee Kim), is Gon’s next assignment.

In fact, because this material is so similar to ground covered in John Woo’s classic The Killer, the audience is sort of waiting for Gon to come around and attempt to redeem himself by saving the ill-fated Mogyeong, who is of course also very beautiful.

But the way it plays out has an entirely different feel. Where Woo attempted to subsume the pulp trashiness of the material in religious iconography, and had the peerlessly cool Chow Yun-Fat along to make it all seem inappropriately fun, Jeong-Beom Lee wallows in the horror of sudden loss. The grief of the survivor, and of the murderer, is depicted with nuanced details—the finding of a photo here, long-withheld tears there—and it’s not fun. It’s grinding, awful heaviness.

Dong-Gun Jang plays the closed-off hit man with a minimum of charm; he’s damned and knows it fully. Even when forced into the inevitable third-act heroics, he registers only professionalism and self-loathing. As his target, Min-Hee Kim is required to play every other emotion, from high achievement to abject terror. She has a fine, open face that transmits feeling transparently. The movie puts her, and us, through such an ordeal that the conclusion is more cauterizing than cathartic.

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