Director Ryoo Seung-wan has quickly made a name for himself as an action man; a director of a singular, urban, macho brand of thriller. Beginning with Die Bad (basically all about male aggression) and through Crying Fist (basically about male self-determination via the world’s most brutal sport) and The City of Violence (basically about male grief and the loss of fraternal trust), Ryoo could easily be referred to as the polar opposite of Pedro Almodovar: he’s a man’s director! I mean, look at the words in his titles. Dying, fists and violence are par for the course.
So it’s no great shock that his latest hard boiled thriller, The Unjust, has a manly ’70s American cop show feel (well, that part’s new) and revolves around Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jung-min, A Bittersweet Life), a police academy dropout who nonetheless has lofty ambitions. He’s prevented from any promotions because of that, and lacking the “right” connections finds himself languishing near the bottom of the law enforcement ladder. The film starts with the gripping news of a series of schoolgirl rape-murders, breathlessly reported by the media and capturing the public’s attention the way crimes like it do. It’s unsolved, with few leads, and the public is screaming for police blood. At the same time, Choi is closing a corruption case involving a sketchy land deal with Kim Yang-soo (Jo Yeong-jin, Secret Sunshine). Also floating around this ether is rival developer Jang Seok-gu (Yoo Hae-jin, Moss), unconventional (look, long hair!) public prosecutor Joo Yang (the director’s brother, Ryoo Seung-bum, Crying Fist) and Choi’s patient and curious partner Ma (Ma Dong-seok). Each gets into another’s pocket and gets stuck in a cycle of rot, regardless of how noble the motives may have been. Greater detail would require more bandwidth than this site allows.
To say the plot is needlessly convoluted and overstuffed is like saying grass is green, to which the standard response is, “Ya think?” The Unjust doesn’t know when to end and by the time some DNA analysis comes in (wait, what?), you’ve forgotten what the hell it was for and why its results are so earth-shattering. There is scheming, double-crossing, palm-greasing, shady promises and fabrication of evidence. There is also an event horizon where it all gets to be too much. Ryoo could have used a judicious editor at the script stage (writer Park Hoon-jung also penned the excessive I Saw the Devil and needs to learn restraint) to keep what should have been his strongest film on track. Alas, there is too much drag for such an action-packed film.
The Unjust, for all its hot button topicality, is cursed with that most Korean of illnesses: hyperbole. No one can simply argue their point, resulting in a great deal of thespian hysteria marked by much screaming, head-smacking (other people’s) and breaking of office and restaurant furniture. Fine, South Korean cinema resolutely disdains subtlety, but lapses in logic are unforgiveable anywhere. You would think that all these law enforcement professionals would know better how to cover their tracks; using one’s personal phone to call a dude you’re framing an innocent man for a heinous sex crime with seems unwise to this laywoman.
That said Ryoo does paint a vivid (hopefully exaggerated) portrait of the kind of casual corruption and rigid formalism that is the bane of too many Koreans’ lives. Both are issues that are rarely addressed in Korean cinema with such obvious contempt, though it remains one of the country’s most pressing concerns. Ryoo’s rendering of social hierarchy and the need for the “right” background and so on is pitch perfect and anyone familiar with Korea will find the black humour within. Not for nothing The Unjust was the country’s box office champ for 2010.
Better still would have been characters slightly less grey. Moral ambiguity is all fine and dandy, but the degree to which all the characters connive for their own benefit is exhausting. It also suggests Ryoo believes there is no good in these institutions, and if there is it will be crushed. Only two characters have a clear sense of self and purpose: Ma and Lee Dong-seok (Woo Dong-gi), the schoolgirl murders patsy and Choi’s ticket to the Blue House (imagine an FBI agent going from Iowa to DC). Guess how they end up? The story was allegedly inspired by a recent true scandal that sullied a few state and business enterprises, so perhaps Ryoo’s righteous indignation is justified. If only he’d made his point sooner.