The Unjust

The Unjust

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Korean Film Festival returns for 2011 with a director retrospective taking up much of the programme. The director in question is none other than 'action kid' Ryoo Seung-wan, whose films are known for their intense and moody tone and have starred some of Korea's top acting talent including the star of international hit Oldboy Choi Min-sik (who also stars in the festival's retrospective screening of Crying Fist) and Ryoo Seung-bum - who is the director's brother and a star in his own right. A young director, Ryoo has built up commercial and critical success with seven films in 11 years, but The Unjust is a recent release and takes pride of place in the festival as the closing gala. It comes loaded with accolades having previously played at the 2011 Berlinale Film Festival and winning Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Ryoo Seung-bum at the Fantasia Film Festival.

Ryoo's reputation for gritty drama will not be dented by this film, as The Unjust is a downbeat and intense study of corruption, murder and blackmail whose poster boasts the tagline 'justice is a deal'. What begins as a police procedural drama soon spins into a cat and mouse extortion game. This is a picture painted of modern Seoul where every agent of the law is compromised and justice seemingly only comes about by accident after money or threats change hands. The plot is somewhat far-fetched and tonally the film is a bit odd, while some scenes and acting performances feel over-wrought but Ryoo brings a solid film home that makes it stand out, though not hugely, from the very crowded field of Korean police dramas. This is mostly due to a pair of interesting main leads playing compromised characters.

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The Unjust opens with Seoul gripped in a media frenzy following a spree of schoolgirl murders, with the police frantically chasing down the main suspect. However a trigger happy cop shoots the main suspect dead during a chase, following which the DNA and physical evidence is revealed to be compromised. With the district commander under pressure from the president, he and the higher ups secretly instruct the morally grey and highly aggressive Captain Choi (Hwang Jung-min) to bring in a killer, any killer, to be the fall guy so the media can have their scalp. Facing his own problems due to his dodgy deals with the mob and passed over for promotion many times due to being an outsider, Choi accepts.

But things begin to spiral out of control when Choi decides to contract out the work of setting up a former sex offender for the fall by using a shady business associate, Jang (Yoo Hae-jin) to help create the airtight case. Jang is involved in a bitter turf war with a mob boss who is using young and arrogant prosecutor, Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-bum) to fight his corner in the courts. Before long, Joo-yang is smelling a rat in Choi's case and manoeuvres to bring the corrupt cop down. And so the two compromised guardians of justice engage in a game of cat and mouse, using secret cameras, alcohol, bribes and outright violence to bring each other down whilst the eccentric Jang keeps his fingers in as many pies as possible, blackmailing both. No one can come out of this well.

Downbeat, grey and shot with energetic camera work and some impressive yet small scale action set pieces, The Unjust is not for those who prefer their police as white knights. Seoul's cops in this film seem to all be on the take, regularly assault their suspects and each other, and spend their off duty hours manoeuvring against the prosecutors office or their own superiors. The actors playing the two figureheads of this corrupt system, Ryoo Seung-bum and yoo Seung-bum, complement and contrast one another well. Choi is the working class grunt, while Joo-yang enjoys effortless connections. Despite some overblown moments, both are given characters with enough shade to make them interesting (Joo-yang for example is perfectly willing to get into bed with the mob but he maintains a nice line of charity soup kitchen work).

The Unjust is an intense ride, a little one-note, but is very slickly made. Just don't expect to come out with your faith in humanity bolstered.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2011
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The Unjust packshot
A spree of schoolgirl murders has gripped Seoul by the throat but the police are on it and accidentally kill the murderer - but they can't simply bring in a dead suspect...
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Festivals:

London Korean 2011

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