[For the next two weeks, Alec will be covering select films from the New York Asian Film Festival. For complete coverage of the festival, make sure to check out the page for the tag “NYAFF11.” Keep watching throughout the week as we bring you more reviews!]
The Unjust has everything you could want from a thriller: action, violence, corruption, violence, intrigue, and violence. Even better, it completely any stupid romantic subplots. From beginning to end it is pure thriller. A good thriller is about more than just the action, though. The story has to drive things forward. Does The Unjust have the story to match its violence?
The Unjust tells the story of a police Captain named Choi Cheol-gi, who has been passed over for a promotion several times, and seems to be mixed up in some kind of scandal. The public is on the lookout for a criminal who raped and murdered a young girl, and the prime suspect is killed in a chase during the film’s opening. Unfortunately, the police need a live scapegoat, and Choi (who is under police investigation) is called in to get an “actor” to play the part. While his team (which does not know about the scheme) deals with the case and apprehends the “criminal,” a prosecutor named Joo-yang, who will be prosecuting whoever is brought in as the suspect, is also trying to find out what is going on with Choi, who he suspects of corruption. Joo-yang is also a bit corrupt, spending time with important CEOs and helping them out. Also murder, coverups, bribes, threats, and other things.
The story is really complicated, and I would need a lot more space to try to explain it in a logical way. This complication is my biggest problem with the film. I spent a good portion of the film unsure of who some of the (vital) characters were. I knew names, but I didn’t know faces, and I am still not entirely sure of how some of the characters were related to others. During some of the more ambiguous scenes, I spent a lot of time thinking I knew what was going on only to realize that two characters had never met and that what happened was a surprise for the characters. I was just unsure about a lot of things. What I do not know, however, is whether this confusion is due to the film itself being overly complicated, or the translation being too simple. The subtitles were rife with grammatical errors and mispellings, and I was often confused simply due to the unprofessional translation. If you are fluent in Korean, you may find the film to be much less confusing than I did, but, then again, you may not. I don’t actually know.
What you probably care the most about is the violence, and let me tell you that the violence in this film is amazing. You already know that Korean film directors are leagues beyond American directors when it comes to showing physical violence, but it needs to be reiterated with this film: there is nothing in America that even comes close. I honestly believe that every single punch, kick, headbutt, and throw in the entire film was real. The actor playing Choi must have some serious martial arts training, because he kicked ass throughout the film. A huge number of people get beaten by him for various reasons, and every single one is brutal. From single punches to drawn-out brawls, this is some of the most realistic on-screen fighting I have ever seen.
The sound direction really helps to sell it, because every single hit, fall, or whatever is suitably loud and intense. Gunshots sound like gunshots. Punches sound like punches. Slamming doors sound like slamming doors. The soundtrack is also good, and the general audio direction was quite good. No complaints in that department.
This is a beautiful movie. I don’t know why it is that Korean directors are so good at making gorgeous films (have you ever seen the “Fade to Black and White” version of Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance? It’s incredible), but they really are, and Ryoo Seung-wan does nothing to buck that trend. It starts right from the opening scene, which is filled with TV screens and newscasts that set up the political climate of the film. The camera is in constant motion as this happens, and its shift into the chase scene that ends with the eventual murder of suspect number one seamlessly. It is an excellent and beautifully shot opening, and the rest of the film continues that trend.
I wish I could just think about all of the good things, but the issue with the confusing and convoluted plot is just too big. The fact that I am still unsure about what exactly was happening between characters is a bad sign. Whether it is the fault of the director, the screenwriter, or the translator, I do not know, but I can only review based on my experience, and my narrative experience with The Unjust is sub-par. The acting is quite good, and there was never a question of the emotional significance of any interaction, but how those interactions fit within the broader context of the narrative was and is unclear to me.
If you want to see incredibly real and brutal hand-to-hand violence, you must see The Unjust. If you care only about the narrative, you will be disappointed. Given a thriller’s reliance on the subtleties of the narrative, I probably missed quite a bit, which is a shame, because I was actually very interested in the story as a whole. The Unjust may not the best Korean action film I have ever seen, but it’s still a damn good one, and the spectacle of the whole thing is too well done to ignore.
As with B.T.S.: Better than Sex and Yakuza Weapon, I stayed to attend a Q&A session with the director. The session was really interesting, but twice as long as the others, so it will take a bit more time to transcribe. Hopefully it will be up later this weekend.