If you do not know much about South Korean society and take a fair trial for granted, you may find the case depicted in South Korean courtroom drama “Unbowed” absurd and outrageous. So did I while watching it, but, to me and other South Korean audiences, it is painfully funny, because we are well aware that it reflects one of shameful aspects of South Korean society – and most of us know that such a case did happen a few years ago.
With the names, the circumstances, and other details changed a little bit, “Broken Arrow” tells us the story based on a real-life incident and the following legal procedure that drew a lot of attention from the people and media at that time. In late 2007, one math professor named Kim Kyung-ho(Ahn Seong-gi) is arrested for attempting to assault the judge who presided over a trial on his appeal case. Several years ago, he was fired by his university just because he could not be silent about one faulty problem in some important exam. He filed a lawsuit for this unfair discharge, but he lost. Later, after finding that there was a good chance for his win, he enters an appeal, but that judge dismisses it without any proper reason. He is so angry and frustrated that, one night, he ambushes the judge with his crossbow and threatens him to admit his mistrial.
It cannot be denied that what he resorts to is wrong, as the Professor Kim himself admits that in the courtroom. However, what happens next after this simple criminal case is quite unfair to him. The other judges instantly hold the meeting and declare that this incident is a terror against the constitutional government – this is like publicly announcing to people that any judge selected for Professor Kim’s upcoming trial is biased from the start.
The situation becomes more outrageous during the trial. Though it seemed at first that the judge in question was injured by an arrow projected from Professor’s crossbow, the circumstance at that time has lots of questionable aspects that do not fit together, so, like the characters in the film, we have lots of questions. For instance, where is that broken arrow smeared with blood which was claimed to be collected by the cops at the crime scene? Or, how many arrows were really at the scene, three or four? And why was the blood found only in the judge’s suit and underwear, but not his shirts between them? Is the blood really the judge’s? Did he really get injured as he testified? And is it possible that the judge and others commit perjury, as Professor Kim claims?
It does not matter at all, because it is clear from the beginning that the judicial officers do not give a damn about confirming whether Professor Kim shot an arrow or not at the scene. The prosecutor half-heartedly submits a bunch of weak, unreliable evidences along with the testimonies from equally unreliable witnesses. The judges presiding over the case accept them without any second thoughts while denying Professor Kim and his lawyers any chance to prove the invalidity of these evidences and testimonies. It seems that all they care about is sentencing Professor Kim several years of imprisonment at the end of the trial.
Unfortunately for them, it turns out to be a tough job, for Professor Kim cannot give up easily. Ahn Seong-gi plays his character as a man for all seasons who is also a major big headache for any lawyer in the world. Besides not accepting any compromise against his principles and belief, as a guy who wears his hearts on his sleeve, he usually says more than his lawyers want in the courtroom. In addition, thanks to his study on the criminal law in the prison, he sometimes acts as if he were his own lawyer; in one tense but amusing scene, he uses his knowledge to corner both the prosecutor and the judge for a while, who must do as he demands if they are really law-abiding public servants.
Not so surprisingly, several lawyers have already given up the case or have been fired by the professor Kim, and his latest choice is an alcoholic lawyer Park Jun(Park Won-sang), who was once a passionate activist lawyer but now is a weary man struggling with financial difficulty. He also soon has troubles with his uncontrollable client, but we all know that he will eventually follow the footsteps of many jaded lawyers whose tarnished ideal in their hearts is awakened by their stubborn clients. We have seen such characters a little too many in lots of courtroom drama movies, but Park Won-sang supports Ahn Seong-gi well, and their scenes at the courtroom have the dramatic power fueled by the outrage happening in front of them and us.
Outside the courtroom, the movie stumbles, though its heavy-handed handling of the story and characters does not significantly hurt itself. The director Chung Ji-young is not a bad director(this is his first work since 1998, by the way), but the dialogues are stiff and awkward from time to time, and many of supporting performers in the film are wasted mainly due to the flat characterization. I do not think Professor Kim’s wife(Na Young-hee) or the reporter who gets close to Park Jun(Kim Ji-ho) are particularly required for storytelling; their main function in the film is showing the reactions like concerned face or standing by the heroes. And I doubt whether a certain scene in the prison is really necessary, although I understand its intent to add another dimension to the character.
Despite these glaring flaws, “Unbowed” has enough anger to engage me and other audiences. There is also the bitter sense of humor behind the conflict between the absurdities of the legal system and a man of principles against them, so it is rather funny to observe them while it is also infuriating to watch them. After this case, there have been other unjust cases in South Korean courts, and, as usual, the protests have been ignored by the South Korean judiciary authorities backed and controlled by the government of the current South Korean president who are detested by many South Koreans for many good reasons. Thankfully, we do not live in North Korea, so the chance to bring some changes will come through the elections in this year. I won’t miss it in this time.