Unforgiven" marks the debut of Korean
director Yoon Jong-bin in impressive fashion,
having won several awards at the 2005 Pusan Film
Festival, including the FIPRESCI and NETPAC
prizes. What is most remarkable about this feat is
the fact that the film is actually the director's
feature-length graduation thesis, made while
completing his university studies. Whilst
this may conjure up images of amateurish
pretension, the film is wholly professional and
skilfully made in a way which belies its
micro-budget and Jong-bin's lack of experience.
Indeed, the director manages to craft believable
characters and a tense atmosphere in a way which
puts many 'proper' films to shame.
The plot is set amongst young
Korean men carrying out their compulsory military
service, and follows Seung-young (Seo Jang-won), a
new recruit who finds that his commanding officer,
Sergeant Tae-jeong (Ha Jeong-woo, "She's
On Duty") is an old school friend.
Tae-jeong looks after Seung-young, and tries to
help the stubborn and contrary youngster adjust to
the strict hierarchies and harshness of military
life. As time passes, Seung-young's resistance
wears down, and he finds himself understanding,
and even becoming more like the superior officers
he previously struggled against. Matters come to a
head when he is given command of Ji-hoon (played
by the director himself), a slovenly newcomer
whose constant incompetence tests Seung-young's
patience, and eventually forces him to act.
These scenes are shown in
flashback, and the rest of the film takes place in
the present, with Seung-young on leave and
desperately searching for Tae-jeong, obviously
troubled about something. It is from this which
the film derives most of its tension, as the two
talk, seemingly dancing around a dark secret which
they are unable to properly communicate to one
another. Unfortunately, this enigma is the weakest
element of the film, and although Jong-bin does a
reasonable job of interesting the viewer, the
revelation, when it finally comes, is predictable
and needlessly underscored with shock effect.
consists mainly of conversation and moves rather
slowly, and as a result may try the patience of
those uninterested in the minutiae of mandatory
Korean military service. There is a fair amount of
common ground, with beatings, mindless
authoritarianism and sexual harassment generating
sympathy for the characters, and going some way to
explore the psychology of the modern Korean male.
Though for the main, the film is obscure, hinting
at things which the average viewer knows nothing
about. Since these scenes are repeated throughout,
the film does have a sense of inevitability which
is frustrating, since the director is obviously in
no hurry to reach the predictable conclusion.
More interesting are the
scenes in the present day, where the effects of
having been trained to operate under harsh
military conditions, with individuality stripped
away and blind obedience being the norm, are
painfully clear. The characters are certainly well
drawn, and the director avoids clichés by making
Seung-young an unlikeable and paranoid moaner
rather than a champion for human kindness.
Jong-bin directs with a
clinical eye, which at times gives "The
Unforgiven" the feel of a documentary.
Interestingly, he was granted permission to shoot
inside actual military barracks by the Korean
Defence Department, who have since taken action
against him after seeing the film's less than
complimentary portrayal of the Korean military.
The film's setting, along with the fact that the
acting frequently seems improvised, grounds the
film and makes its events depressingly authentic.
Unforgiven" speaks mainly to those who have
undergone a similar experience as the characters,
with little provision for outsiders. The effect is
that, whilst interesting and well made, the movie
is never quite engrossing or gripping enough and
offers little more than a glimpse into what is
obviously a traumatic time for many young Korean
men. The film is obviously a deeply personal
effort for Yoon Jong-bin, and as such is likely to
alienate those unfamiliar or indeed uninterested
with the subject matter within. However, the film
works well in general terms as an intimate
character study, and though a little too distant
and wilfully obscure to be great, it nevertheless
makes for occasionally compelling viewing.