Korean films rarely seem to portray the country’s justice system in a particularly positive light, and that’s certainly the case with “Unbowed”, based on a headline-grabbing real life case from 2007 in which a disgruntled professor was charged with shooting a judge with an arrow. The film marks the return of acclaimed director Chung Ji Young, known for early 1990s war dramas such “White Badge” and “Beyond the Mountain”, being his first narrative feature for more than 10 years. In the lead as the embattled academic is probably Korea’s most acclaimed and respected veteran actor, Ahn Sung Ki (“Sector 7”), with support from Park Won Sang (“My Dear Desperado”) as his lawyer, Na Young Hee (“Babyfaced Beauty”), Kim Eung Soo (“Gabi”) and Kim Ji Ho (“My Love”). The film’s powerful handling of such a controversial current issue really struck a chord with the public, propelling it to the top of the box office, and also found favour with the critics, winning Best Film and Best Actor at the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards.
Though the names and some of the situations have been changed, the plot follows quite closely the facts of the famous ‘Crossbow Case’, with Ahn Sung Ki as Professor Kim Kyung Ho, who is fired from his university position after complaining about a mistake with an exam paper. Although the unfair dismissal suit he brings against the university seems clear-cut, his case is rejected by judge Park Bong Joo (Kim Eung Soo), and an angry Kim confronts him at his front door, wielding a crossbow. After the police arrive to find Park apparently having been shot with an arrow, Kim is arrested and put on trial, pleading not guilty. Despite much of the evidence against him being decidedly flimsy, he is convicted and sent to jail in what seems suspiciously like a show trial, and so he enlists the help of attorney Park Won Sang to try and get the verdict overturned. In his struggle for justice Kim comes up against a series of other judges, all of whom seem determined to bring the full force of the law against him and maintain his guilt no matter what.
It might actually be difficult for non-Korean viewers to believe that “Unbowed” is based upon a true story, given just how flawed and corrupt the country’s justice system is portrayed as being. The film is indeed shocking, so much so that it at times feels almost like some kind of satire, as judges refuse to look at crucial evidence, ignore witnesses and generally make decisions blatantly in favour of pandering to the societal elite. Director Chung Ji Young really does a great job with the material, successfully taking a complex and multi-layered subject and making it accessible and easy to understand for the average layman viewer, and does so without ever dumbing things down or turning the film into too much of an everyman underdog against the system type story. The film is succinct, well-structured and moves along at a brisk pace, never getting too bogged down in the details, and though there’s a great deal of dialogue and courtroom scenes, it’s arguably as exciting and rousing as any recent Korean thrillers, and perhaps more so.
Unsurprisingly, the film absolutely belongs to the magnificent Ahn Sung Ki – if the film weren’t based on a real life case, it would be very easy to suspect that the role of Kim Kyung Ho had been written precisely with the actor in mind. Ahn is on top form throughout the film, combining quiet dignity and righteous anger, adding depth and humanity as a crusading though flawed protagonist facing off against an unmoving and seemingly undefeatable enemy. Inevitably, the rest of the cast are in his shadow, and the film is never quite as interesting while he is off-screen or when outside of the courtroom or prison, though to his credit Chung does try to flesh out the supporting characters. Park Won Sang is decent as his lawyer, as are Na Young Hee as his wife and actress Jang Eun Seo as a plucky reporter, and the variety of grumpy, implacable veteran actors portraying the judges are all suitably loathsome.
There’s something very rewarding about seeing a film which is both a crowd-pleasing entertainer and a genuine attempt to shine a critical light on an aspect of modern Korean desperately in need of reform. “Unbowed” really is an excellent film, and comes as with the highest recommendation as one of the best Korean blockbusters of the last year or so.
Ji-yeong Jeong (director) / Ji-yeong Jeong, Hyun-keun Han (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn