Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae) 2010

(Opening film for KOFFIA 2011)

Ryoo Seung-wan is already a popular and respected filmmaker who has pleased fanboys (The City of Violence, 2006) and critics alike (Crying Fist, 2005), but with his new film The Unjust, he has elevated himself to a new level, from which he can now comfortably tower over the majority of his peers. Principally known for his exceptional action sequences and choreography, Ryoo is a technical wizard who has the ability to inject vitality into just about any subject. What he has done here is namely to use his strengths in action filmmaking and apply those techniques laterally into different elements of the film. While The Unjust may be a film about cops and murder, there is much less action than you would imagine from Ryoo, although it is to his credit that it never feels that way.

Hwang Jeong-min and Yu Hae-jin
With a blistering pace, a cool head, and intense focus Ryoo has fashioned a film that has successfully built on its most accomplished predecessors. It feels like a Korean and slightly more stylized version of a New Hollywood film from the 1970s. In particular I’m reminded of Serpico (1973) and The French Connection (1971) but also many others. The paranoia from that era’s conspiracy thrillers and the composed, organized, and yet organic framing and juxtaposition of those tempered filmmakers like Sydney Lumet and Billy Friedkin’s mise-en-scene, are all on evident display in this simultaneously old school and progressive masterclass of filmmaking.

The Unjust is probably the most richly conceived film to come out of Korea in 2010, although The Yellow Sea comes in as a close second. The busy, cluttered, and yet highly precise production design is more than amply matched by the constantly angled cinematography which is so richly composed and sequenced to highlight the  proliferate characters in all their physical and psychological states. In essence mirroring the deliberately convoluted and tense narrative, the mise-en-scene is dense and mesmerizing. The sound is exceptionally well-crafted and carefully orchestrated with the tight editing, and some key sequences employ parallel editing while also taking advantage of the intense and powerful music, especially the recurring, sinister horns.

Ryoo Seung-beom
The story involves a great number of characters but at the heart of the plot there is a stoic and gruff police captain Cheol-gi (Hwang Jeong-min) who has been passed over for promotion one too many times, Joo-yang a young prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-beom), ruthlessly ambitious in his profession but conflicted by his frequently compromised ethics, and Jang, a cagey gangster (Yu Hae-jin) who wears a suit and pretends to inhabit the business world despite being more comfortable stabbing someone in the back with his knife. The narrative begins with the manhunt for the killer of a young girl which has a lot at stake for the police department. Its conflict arises from the higher-ups enlisting of Cheol-gi to cover up a death and make a conviction stick to a patsy while Jang harbors ambitions to take down his rival who has Joo-yang in his pocket. As the story gets more complicated they get more entangled together.

My primary misgiving with The Unjust is that like a great number of the New Hollywood filmmakers, Ryoo Seung-wan doesn’t seem to have strong or relatable female characters in most of his work. The film is a prime example of a male-driven thriller that makes no effort to portray the opposite gender. In one sense this is sort of a blessing in disguise as all the males and therefore all the protagonists in this narrative are shown to be corrupt, ruthless, and/or motivated purely by personal gain. Moral fiber figures in some of the characters ideals but this veneer is swiftly peeled away to show the moral turpitude of everyone associated with the system and then some.

Film noir
The main theme of the day is police corruption which is something that is so frequent and dare-I-say blasé in modern Korean film that the proposition could potentially seem a little risky. I don’t know if it has ever been so pronounced and vociferous though, everyone is a very dark shade of grey in this film and the corruption is so all-consuming, depraved, and simply conducted that it kind of takes your breath away.

The performances are among the cast’s best, the script (from I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-jung) is tight and menacing, the sparse choreography by Jeong Doo-hong will blow your socks off, and Ryoo’s expert and thrilling direction will keep you on the edge of your seats all throughout. This film noir is one of the best Korean movies of the last few years and I suggest that you don’t miss it!

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