There is one scene that strikes me hard in the middle of “The Unjust”. It is one of many unjust things happening on the screen, but none of two main characters who occupy that scene is someone we are sorry for. They are just the strong and the weak according to the rules of the system they belongs to. Both know that. They also know what each of them can or must do and willingly follow the rule. The weak literally kneel before the strong and begs for his mercy. The strong accepts with a haughty attitude – but we know that he also has someone he has bow to above him.
Don’t mistake it. The characters I described above do not belong to the criminal organization; they are public servants. The one is a policeman and the other one is a prosecutor.
From showing the complex relationship between the police, the public prosecutor’s Office, and the people who deal with them, “The Unjust” tells us a bitter story about how this unjust system works. There is no way for its individuals to remain clean when the system is corrupt. Inexorably, they always get dirty while trying to do the right thing, or believing that they’re trying to do the right thing.
The movie starts with a sensational serial killing case shocking the whole nation(this is probably the third or fourth time I encounter the serial killing in Korean movies in this year). Recently having a prime suspect get killed, the police have lots of pressure from the citizens, the media, and, above all, the President who demands that the case be solved as soon as possible. They must find a way to solving the case or any other ways for retaining their public image.
They choose Choi Cheol-gi(Hwang Jeong-min) as the new chief of the special investigation team. He is a cop with the good record, but that is not the main reason he is chosen for; he is chosen due to his lack of personal connections. If the investigation is failed, his discharge will not hurt anyone in the police. Cheol-gi knows that well when one of his superiors personally asks him to take the case, but he accepts it. He has been always denied promotion(mainly because he did not graduate from the Police Academy) and is willing to bet his career on this murder case.
However, the movie is not about solving the murder case. Under his superiors’ silent consents, Cheol-gi does a risky cleaning job. With his men he trusts, he assembles the other possible suspects and analyzes them for sorting out the most plausible suspect. It does not matter whether that suspect is guilty or not. All Cheol-gi has to do is asking Jang Seok-gu(Yoo Hae-jin), a mob boss who has been associated with him, to get the suspect and ‘persuade’ him to be the serial killer the whole nation is looking for. Their scheme ends up being successful and everybody goes happily along with it. However, the things get messy for them when the case is handled by prosecutor Ju Yang(Ryoo Seong-beom), who also has his own dirty business to be taken care of.
With the original screenplay by Park Jeong-hoon(the writer of “I Saw the Devil”, the most controversial Korean movie of this year), the director Ryoo Seung-wan(“The City of Violence”(2006)) carefully maps out the positions of his three main characters and others from the start with the subtitles informing the date, the time, and the names. As the plot thickens, the details about their complicated relationships are succinctly delivered to us and we come to understand how they affect each other as well as their motives. Their interests are so entangled with each other that one conflict of interests logically results in other conflict. Or, the one is solved, and then here comes another one. This seems endless until someone is pulled out from this power game.
While closely observing the dynamics between them, the movie looks far more widely at the system and its excruciating mechanism in the Korean society. It is not different from what you saw in HBO TV series “The Wire”; the system is adamantine and the individuals are usually helpless in front of its effects – especially in case of the ones occupying the lower strata. Although there are some shifts in the power game, it is eventually clear that who has the power to wield and who is the nearest at the top and who will remain no matter what happens. Although Ryoo Seung-wan said he was not intended to make the movie as a social critique, the Korean audience will feel lots of familiarity to the society shown in the movie thanks to the recent big scandals associated with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. They probably have gut-chilling feeling at the end of movie because they know too well that this is how the system works not only in the movie but also in their reality.
Regardless of whether the movie is a social critique or not, Ryoo Seung-wan makes a compelling urban noir movie. Compared to his previous works, “The Unjust” is a more controlled work with lots of confidence as usual. The pace is brisk in most parts, the humor is well-integrated into the story, and the characters are solid. The world they inhabit is presented realistically as well as stylishly from the filthy garage disposal factory to the luxurious gallery party. There is only one notable short action scene in the movie, but, even with that scene, Ryoo proves again that he is very good at making effective physical action sequence; you can really feel the desperation in their struggle.
The actors efficiently do what exactly their given roles demand. Ryoo Seung-beom is standout with his over the top performance in the ensemble. As a haughty prosecutor, he chews his scenes with the exaggerated mannerism and speech pattern, but his character somehow fits into the story as well as the machine as a cog. He never loses the sense of humor in his character and I forgave him for appearing in “No Mercy”, one of the worst Korean movies of this year. Hwang Jeong-min, who previously acted with Ryoo before in another urban noir “Bloody Tie”, holds the center while giving another solid performance after his scene-stealing supporting turn in “Blades of Blood” in this year. Yoo Hae-jin is relatively weak compared to the intensity of his co-stars, but he is as good as the rest of the talented cast including Cheon Ho-jin, Jeong Man-sik, and Song Sae-byeok.
The main characters of “The Unjust” are pretty much unlikeable in various degrees and it was hard for me to care about these dirty rotten scoundrels. I once talked about some other Korean movie with the other online critic through the twitter a few days ago, and I made the mistake by simply saying I hated that movie because “I didn’t care about the characters.” I indeed didn’t care much about its characters, but the real problem was it failed in pulling me in their story. In contrast, “The Unjust” has an interesting story and unlikeable but interesting characters, and, like any good stories, it observes what will happen when they roll around. The movie grasped me strongly enough to care about what will happen at least with the story, the style, and the performances. While feeling a little distant, I could feel its energy and laughed with the audiences at several humorous moments.
Although it loses some of its power around the conclusion(it could have been shortened for a bigger effect), the movie still holds well itself with the ironic ending. After entertaining us for 2 hours, the movie pointedly tells us that the corrupt system cannot be changed easily and people go along with it. Sadly, that happens a lot in our reality.