There’s little that moviemakers who specialise in thrillers enjoy more than good old-fashioned courtroom throwdown. If that throwdown can involve an alcoholic washout seeking redemption, well, even better. Also? There’s very little Koreans enjoy more than watching someone stick it to the man, if only in the movies. So with that in mind comes Unbowed, a kinda sorta Korean version of The Verdict, with way more proselytizing and way less Paul Newman. The film is based on a “sensational” true incident that occurred in Seoul a few years back (and is ongoing according to the film’s epilogue), when an unassuming professor denied tenure because of his refusal to tow the party (or in this case academic) line is systematically run out of his job. He takes his argument to the courts where he finds the judges, his bosses and all sorts of official types are all in bed together.
The victim of academic politicking and social hierarchy is maths professor Kim Kyung-ho (Ahn Sung-ki), and fighting the inherently unbalanced legal system drives him to such heights of frustration that he flips out, stalks the judge that denied his final appeal and shoots him with a crossbow. Way to go math dude!
Unbowed taps into a pretty broad wish fulfilment stream running through Korea. One part fantasy and one part courtroom thriller, the film realises the idea that one smart man, defending himself, can find both justice and a massive corruption conspiracy while throwing off the bonds that still runs the country’s political, industrial and academic life. Veteran director Chung Ji-young pulls the rug of a fair legal apparatus out from under viewers while at the same time stoking the fires of agitation. He deals ever so slightly with heady topics like the public’s tendency to anti-analytical thinking, institutional corruption and the kind of social and professional rigidity that prevails in Korea, but does it all in a by-the-numbers courtroom drama that feels like it was made for 1970s television. Credit to Chung: his HD photography (by shooter Kim Hyung-ku) is at least lit properly.
You can’t have a legal thriller without a lawyer, so in the Paul Newman role of redemption seeking soused lawyer Park Jun is Park Won-sang (R-Point), ready at a moment’s notice to chew scenery. There’s a crusading lawyer (natch!) and a weepy wife, but this is where Unbowed (get it?) departs from the Newman/Sidney Lumet classic: they’re all in service to Kim’s defendant’s box sermonising. The case at hand doesn’t reveal anything about the people trying it and it only influences them in the most minor of ways.
Unbowed’s script is clunky and very often simply lazy, and the Exposition Fairy shows up on more than one occasion. What’s more is the wealth of questionable film language choices. Seriously, screen swipes? Never mind The Verdict, this is taking things into Perry Mason territory. But above all else, you have to hope that the dramatic licence at work here is considerable. If Unbowed is an accurate picture of Korean jurisprudence, then people should be worried. Whether or not accused defending themselves can stand up in court and go on at hyperbolic length is anyone’s — well at least my — guess. Are Korean lawyers and suspects really allowed to give stern dressing-downs to sitting judges? If so, it’s no wonder they keep throwing Kim in jail. Chung seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of legal dramas: the court scenes have to have at least a semblance of realism. Obscure precedents and stirring closing arguments fall flat when viewers don’t buy everything that went before. And there isn’t a moment in Unbowed that feels real.
You also need a “good guy” to root for. Regardless of Ahn’s natural screen charm (a smart casting choice), Kim’s persistent self-righteousness, taken to the degree that he ignores legal advice even though he’s a mathematician (!), gets tiresome. And it makes him seem like a dick. If Chung is trying to make a point, fine, but Unbowed is so pedestrian in its filmmaking and moralising (though on occasion utterly hysterical) that any point is drowned out by its grandstanding. Objection, indeed.