The Unjust

September 10, 2011
The Unjust
The Unjust

This is the second year of the Korean Film Festival in Australia, and like anything the South Koreans undertake it is a dynamic enterprise. This year’s KOFFIA is twice as big as the inaugural year, and it will probably continue to grow. The Festival has just concluded in Sydney, and opens tonight in Melbourne.

It is worth scrutinizing the Korean film industry because it must seem like a thing of wonder to Australian filmmakers. In South Korea there has been a long-running quota system that ensures a large percentage of the films showing in local cinemas are Korean. At a Q & A session in Sydney last week, the youthful director of the opening night feature, Ryoo Seung-wan, drew gasps from the crowd when he revealed that the budget for his political thriller, The Unjust, was AUD $30 million. By Korean standards, he said, this is quite a modest sum.

One wonders if the quality of Korean cinema may be attributed to the high level of support the industry enjoys, or if the films themselves have generated the confidence that inspires investment? In recent years, directors such as Kim Ki-duk, Park Chang-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Im Kwon-taek and Bong Joon-ho, have won worldwide acclaim for features that range from psychological drama, to intense action, to big-budget horror.

A notable addition to the honour board, The Unjust might be described as an entertainment rather than a work of art. It is one of several crime films in the Festival selection, including another by Ryu, called No Blood, No Tears. There is also a reprise of Park Chang-wook’s 2000 hit, Joint Security Area; the horror feature, Bedevilled; and  a black comedy, Sim’s Family – variety enough for all tastes.

The Unjust is a variation on the ‘flawed cop’ story, familiar from movies such as Dirty Harry (1971). In typically Korean fashion, it takes the formula to new extremes. Not only is the head cop, Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jeong-min) seriously flawed, his chief antagonist – deputy prosecutor, Joo-yang (Ryu Seung-beam), is an angry, gloating, arrogant opportunist. The villains, suitably murderous and creepy, are little more than a chorus for the confrontation between Choi and Joo-yang.

The police’s preferred mode of communication is to belt someone, or even shoot them. This is also the way they relate to their colleagues in the department. The Unjust sends the resounding message to tourists that it is best not to get on the wrong side of the Korean police. Don’t cross against the lights or drop litter, or you might wind up in intensive care.

On opening night, Ryoo Seung-wan felt obliged to reassure his audience that this was “slghtly exaggerated”. Nevertheless, it continues a taste for violence and moral degradation that permeates much of the new Korean cinema. Many of these films are intensely masculine, with little room for women except as victims of physical and sexual abuse. The Unjust has virtually no female characters apart from Choi’s long-suffering sister, and a couple of hostesses in a drinking den. At least they all escape unscathed, which is more than can be said for most of their male counterparts.

It is a brave move to open an official festival with a film like The Unjust because it portrays Korean society as thoroughly rotten. In order to save face with public and the politicians, the police top brass are looking for a candidate they can frame for a series of schoolgirl sex murders. Choi can be coerced into this affair as his brother-in-law is involved in a set of shady deals already being investigated. Choi himself is closely implicated with the unscrupulous property developer, Jang Seok-goo (Yu Hae-jin), who is little more than a gangster.

Meanwhile, deputy prosecutor Joo-yang is being wined and dined by another property shark, who is locked in a battle with Jang. His confrontation with Choi will not spring from an urge to see justice done, but firstly from his association with this other crook, and secondly from a bloody-minded desire to prevail at all costs.

Hwang’s performance as Inspector Choi is so deadpan that he makes Clint Eastwood look like Peewee Herman. It might be more accurate to say he has an air of perpetual tragedy, even when inlflicting regular doses of ultra-violence on foes and friends.

Ryu’s role as Joo-yang is maniacal. He makes one think of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker, in Batman – minus the make-up. He spends the entire film shouting at people, occasionally breaking off for some recreational smirking or evil laughter.

There is more than a hint of melodrama in The Unjust, and an extraordinary amount of bone-jarring violence, but Ryu’s tongue is often in his cheek. The film is full of black humour, and there is barely a scene, no matter how violent, with no trace of irony or satire. It is a running gag that every flunkey or underling is utterly subservient to the boss. One assumes this is a wry comment on the hierarchical nature of Korean society, but – as with the depictions of police brutality – slightly exaggerated.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 10, 2011

South Korea. Not rated. 119 minutes.

The Korean Film Festival in Australia, 10-13 September,
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, Melbourne
http://www.koffia.com.au/