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A crime thriller that pits an errant, bellicose cop against a miscreant, maniacally ambitious prosecutor, The Unjust, achieves a happy marriage between commercial savvy and artistic integrity in its hard-hitting depiction of Seoul as a city of corruption. Social realism rarely sits comfortably with technical razzle-dazzle, punchy storytelling and larger-than-life star performances, but Ryoo Seung-wan pulls it off with direction that balances cool cynicism with seething moral outrage.
According to Ryoo, the plot is partly derived from several recent government scandals. The shocking examples of social injustice on display probably touched a raw nerve among local audiences, bringing him $18.7 million’s worth of ticket revenue. Asian genre fans familiar with Ryoo’s repertoire of macho action films (Crying Fist, City of Violence) may need time to adjust to the way he turns his emphasis from physical combat to a war of wills.
The catalyst in The Unjust is an unsolved series of schoolgirl murders that is rocking police credibility. The police’s crisis management proves that citizens’ mistrust is totally justified – Captain Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jung-min) is put in charge and told to find a fall-guy for them to stage a media stunt. Choi enlists the help of Mafioso-cum-property-magnet Jang Seok-gu (Yoo Hae-jin). By doing so, Choi becomes Jang’s pawn in his land-bidding wars against another corporate shark Kim (whom Choi put behind bars sometime ago). This triggers the hostility of Kim’s protégé prosecutor Joo Yang (the director’s brother Ryoo Seung-bum), who retaliates with unscrupulous tactics.
The film evinces a deep irony: while the initial crime continues to elude closure at the end, everyone else, especially defenders and enforcers of law behave like pathological criminals. Arguably Korea’s most masculine action director, who excelled in shooting boxing, gang fights and martial arts, Ryoo turns The Unjust into his vehicle for a most scathing rebuke of machismo. In his predominantly male world tempers are almost always on boiling point, fueling the narrative’s nervous tension like a volcano in perpetual eruption.
What sets this apart from other Korean thrillers exposing corruption like the Public Enemy series is the anti-heroic and gritty nature of the action. There is not a single mano-a-mano fought as a test of strength or honor – just a cycle of violence whereby everyone takes it out on whoever’s lower down the pecking order.
The tough personalities and fiery clash between the lead roles maintain a grip on the audience till the end. They are matched not only in intelligence, but in egoism, selfishness and ruthlessness. Choi’s increased desperation to cover his tracks makes him a tragic anti-hero. He is neatly foiled by Joo, who is so ready to be bad as long as it advances his career. But ultimately, Choi and Joo are engulfed by the greater rivalry between judiciary and police departments. The three leading men turn in flaming performances. Ryoo trumps them by giving unthinkable gradations in vileness.
Like a recklessly speeding car, the narrative pacing barely allows the audience to take in screenplay’s intricate plotting, which neatly unravels cause and effect. Technical credits, especially cinematography, are excellent — dynamic swooping shots and tight handheld camerawork exaggerates spatial contrasts to symbolize class inequality.
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