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With hits like “Crying Fist” and “The City of Violence” under his belt, Korean director Ryoo Seung Wan has made a name for himself as one of the country’s top purveyors of hard-boiled action. For his latest outing “The Unjust”, he takes things even further with a caustic, no holds barred expose of corruption and deceit in the police force, legal system and media, painting a grim picture of a system built almost entirely on self interest. The film again sees Ryoo working with action choreographer Jung Doo Hung, with a cast headlined by his brother Ryoo Seung Bum (“The Servant”) and acclaimed actors Hwang Jung Min (“Blades of Blood”) and Yu Hae Jin (“Moss”). Despite its potentially inflammatory subject matter and complex, labyrinth plot, the film emerged as one of the biggest domestic blockbusters of 2010, out grossing the vast majority of safer and less challenging popcorn flicks.
The film kicks off with the down on his luck detective Choi (Hwang Jung Min) being offered the chance for promotion in return for finding a scapegoat for a series of unsolved child murders that have seen the police being branded as bumblers by the media. After choosing a former criminal and child molester for the fall guy role, Choi pays off a gang boss he has worked with in the past called Jang (Yu Hae Jin) to set him up. Although their scheme seems to work, Choi’s connections with Jang bring him into conflict with the ruthless prosecutor Joo (Ryoo Seung Bum), who himself has been making deals on the side with one of Jang’s rival mobsters. The case itself becomes a means for the two men to attack each other as they jostle for position over a lucrative real-estate contract in what quickly escalates into all out war, threatening their careers and even their lives.
It’s hard to recall another film as darkly amoral and cynical as “The Unjust”. The film really is one long damning indictment of the Korean justice system and the men who run it, portraying pretty much its entire cast as being motivated entirely by self-gain and being fully committed to bending and breaking the law for their own purposes. Although anti-hero is a term often thrown around for vaguely amoral protagonists, this is one of the films which truly does feature a pair of men who are about as far from shining white knights as it is possible to get. Both Choi and Joo are in many ways loathsome figures, quite willing to use everyone around them to get ahead and never really caring much about the actual case itself. At the same time, the film is all the more powerful for never demonising either of them, and for making sure that they remain painfully human figures throughout, clearly driven by fear and weakness as much as greed. As a result, whilst the film doesn’t have an obvious character that the viewer is pushed towards rooting for, the fates of the two still make for an incredibly gripping two hours.
This does mean that the film is a grim, bleak experience, though Ryoo never lays things on too thick, with the main underlying theme being the question as to whether or not it is ever possible to do good deeds despite having evil intentions. The film balances this and its anti-corruption concerns with a tightly wound narrative which unfolds in fast moving and pleasingly unpatronising style. The viewer is never spoon-fed answers, and the script is definitely one of the more intelligent and uncompromising of late, requiring a fair amount of concentration to keep up with its endless stream of betrayals and double dealings. If anything, the film could have been a little longer, as although the final act is breathlessly exciting, it ends only too quickly, with the last handful of revelations feeling a little rushed.
Unsurprisingly, Ryoo also packs in plenty of brutal action along the way, with lots of car chases, stabbings, fist fights and shootouts. The film’s violence is bloody and frequently gruesome, and this works well to underline the high stakes of the contest between its desperate characters. Ryoo’s direction is slick, and he successfully gives the film a look which is both gritty and glossy, highlighting the notion of there being an ugly world of depravity and viciousness lurking just below the handsome surface.
Uncompromising, merciless and ferociously scathing, “The Unjust” is in many ways Ryoo Seung Wan’s best film to date. Although it’s a little hard to describe anything this dark as being enjoyable in the traditional sense of the word, it’s thrilling and engaging from start to finish, and is one of the most accomplished, not to mention thought provoking, Korean films for some time.
Seung-wan Ryoo (director) / Hoon-jung Park (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-min Hwang … Choi Cheol-gi
Seung-beom Ryu … Joo-yang
Hae-jin Yu … Jang Seok-goo
Ho-jin Jeon … Kang
Dong-seok Ma … Ma Dae-ho
Dong-gi Woo … Lee Dong-seok
Yeong-jin Jo … Kim Yang-su