Sitges 2011: THE UNJUST Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[With Ryoo Seung-Wan's The Unjust screening in Sitges we revisit our previous review.]

A complex, cynical tale of corruption and self interest, Ryoo Seung-Wan's The Unjust pits a pair of coldly amoral protagonists into a spiral of ever escalating violence and subterfuge in a no holds barred contest of survival and self interest. By turns polished to a glimmering sheen and brutal in its gritty depiction of violence, The Unjust also boasts a surprising edge of pitch-black comedy, resulting in a film that is not only the most overtly commercial of Ryoo's career but one that is also very easily his best since Crying Fist.

Hwang Jung-Min (Black House, Private Eye) is Cheol-Gi, a cop who has clawed his way to the middle of the pack where - despite his strong record - he has hit a glass ceiling, passed over repeatedly for promotions and prestige that should be his thanks to his lack of political connections. Having a brother-in-law who accepts bribes from the subject of an active investigation doesn't help either, and Cheol-Gi is at risk at losing even the degree of success he has attained thanks to an Internal Affairs investigation brought on by his in-law's behavior.

So it comes as no surprise when Cheol-Gi jumps at an unorthodox and not particularly above board opportunity. A serial killer is on the loose, one who is killing and dismembering school girls. The pressure to bring in a bust is enormous, the president of the country getting directly involved in the case and demanding daily updates. And they thought they had the guy. They really did. But one of the investigating officers - one with a connection to one of the victims - shot and killed him before they could gather the needed evidence to convict. And so here is the deal presented to Cheol-Gi: Remove all traces of the botched arrest (i.e. dispose of the body) and find someone else to pin the killings on. Use any methods necessary. Succeed and not only will the IA investigation disappear but the promotion he has long been denied will be his. And who does Cheol-Gi know who can help him accomplish this? The gangster that triggered the IA investigation in the first place, of course.

So there's one significant level of corruption to the film. But there's another.

You see, Cheol-Gi's gangster is rival to a wealthy - and dirty - real estate mogul, one who Cheol-Gi arrested using information provided by his new helper. And on the mogul's payroll is Ju Yang (Ryoo Seung-Beom), a public prosecutor who springs his benefactor as soon as Cheol-Gi brings him in and sets out to dig up any dirt possible on the cop to use as leverage to keep his 'sponsor' free and clear.

And there you have it, a film in which the very real presence of a vicious killer becomes completely secondary in an ongoing and rapidly escalating game of cat and mouse between dirty cop and dirty prosecutor, each of them needing to out the other while also masking their own corruption. Nobody is clean in this world, not by a long shot, the only question is who will be the last man standing and at what cost.

By far the most polished film of Ryoo's career, this is smart and nasty film making aimed squarely at the mainstream. At moments it feels like a Tony Scott film but sharper and nastier, the sort of film Scott hasn't dreamed of making since True Romance. It's a twisty, turny affair, one that doesn't revel in the depths of human depravity as much as it simply takes the willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone for one's own benefit as a given.

Ryoo handles the direction with a deft hand, keeping multiple strands of story and character and betrayal stacked on top of betrayal clear and doled out in manageable morsels to his audience. It's a constantly surprising ride, one pushed forward by a restless uncomfortable sort of black comedy, one fully aware of the irony of pitting the protectors of public interest against one another in such bald fashion. Helping greatly are Ryoo's stellar cast. Once again the director's brother (Seong-Beom) proves that he does his best work when engaged in these family affairs while Hwang demonstrates once again that he just might be the best character actor in Korea, his craggy face a welcome counterpoint to a nation obsessed with pretty young pop stars. No matter how far the go, no matter how extreme things get, Hwang and Ryoo keep the film firmly rooted in reality. They feel completely and compellingly like actual people.

As is often the case with Korean film The Unjust struggles some with knowing where to end and runs slightly overlong in an unnecessary attempt to wrap up all possible loose ends. That said, however, this is a film that sees Ryoo moving firmly into a new direction and succeeding admirably. As was the case with Crying Fist he proves himself capable of more than he is usually given credit for and restates his claim as one of Korea's most diverse, polished and just plain talented directors.
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