“The 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.
“The Unforgiven” 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 cliché 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.
Unfortunately “The 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.
Yoon Jong Bin (director) / Yoon Jong Bin (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-woo Ha …. Tae Jeong
Seo Jang Won …. Seung Young
Yoon Jong Bin …. Ji Hoon