If there is one universal truth within Korean cinema, it is the representation of every level of the law enforcement infrastructure as incompetent, unprofessional, and corrupt. In certain cases, such as true-life thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the result can be an incredibly intense and fascinating character study; in other more generic offerings such as S.I.U. (2011) the incompetence of the force is frustratingly infuriating. Yet regardless of whether the central protagonist(s) are operating within law enforcement or without, the abuse of human rights, flagrant disregard for procedure and scandalous corruption are seemingly inherent to the respective institutions.
The Unjust (부당거래), director Ryoo Seung-wan‘s (류승완) eighth feature, continues such ideological distrust with the auteur’s trademark wit, ingenuity and postmodern sensibilities. With an incredible screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정), The Unjust is a highly engaging and intense thriller featuring electric performances by the principal cast and arguably the highlight of Ryoo Seung-wan’s career thus far, winning ‘Best Film’ at 2011 The Blue Dragon Awards.
With intense mounting pressure from the media, citizens and politicians, the police are desperate to catch the perpetrator of the serial rape and murder of young girls in Seoul. Yet when the only major suspect is killed, the law enforcement are in dire need of someone to take the blame and to be held accountable. Director Kang (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) believes he has the perfect officer to find such a scapegoat – Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), an incredibly efficient officer who is routinely passed over for promotion as he did not emerge through the academy. Employing the help of gangster Jang Seok-goo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), the pair find a viable replacement. Yet Jang’s corrupt business rival enlists the help of Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find something – anything – that will stop Jang and Choi and allow his business to prosper. As the fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined, they delve deeper into a moral abyss from which they may never return.
The script by Park Hoon-jeong – which received the best screenplay award at The Blue Dragon Awards – wonderfully balances the array of characters and plot threads at an incredible pace, rarely slowing the momentum or intensity. From the second the film begins the speed at which the narrative is set-up and the players are introduced is spectacular, conveying the seriousness of the situation convincingly. Director Ryoo Seung-wan – who also received an award at The Blue Dragon Awards for best directing – brings the script to life with confidence and style, with camera movement and rapid editing raising the level of excitement to a staggering level. The partnership between both filmmakers is seemingly a perfect match as their respective styles compliment one another in tone, pace and content. The array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties within The Unjust are vast, from minor subtle issues such as favoritism within the police department, public hysteria and presidential involvement, to more scandalous affairs including secret meetings with criminals, corruption, and personal promotion over public service.
The relationships between protagonists and the various underhanded methods employed to gain leverage are brilliantly portrayed and are highly engaging. In particular Detective Choi and Prosecutor Joo-yang are excellent character studies as well as serving as mirrors of each other, of which they are subconsciously aware as they attempt to prove their superiority through obtaining incriminating evidence. Their methods of corruption are wonderfully explored, with Detective Choi more violent, impoverished and urban while Prosecutor Joo-yang meets executives at fancy restaurants and is introduced to high-ranking officials through his father-in-law. Even the gangsters they deal with have differing social statuses, and as such The Unjust is also concerned with class divide and power, as well as the motivations and loop-holes that are exploited in corrupting those within.
Hwang Jeong-min gives a towering performance as Detective Choi Cheol-gi, with his absence from the ‘Best Actor’ category a bizarre oversight. The actor convincing conveys the underdog cop as a violent and diligent yet honest man, who is forced to sink ever-lower due to the request of his captain. His mere physical presence adds intensity to each scene with his height and mannerisms an intimidatingly powerful force. Hwang Jeong-min is so compelling as the violent corrupt cop that when he eventually breaks down it is something of a visceral shock, adding a dimension to his character that creates empathy despite his crimes.
Ryoo Seung-beom is also highly competent as Prosecutor Joo-yang, conveying weasely charm in abundance and is a delight to hate. The actor, nominated for his role, also adds a comedic sensibility to his role as he slithers from one lie to the next as he attempts to rectify his situation wth his superiors and corrupt colleagues. As a slight negative, Ryoo Seung-beom does have a tendency to shout his lines rather than act them which can be distracting.
As street gangster-turned-businessman Jang Seok-goo, actor Yoo Hae-jin is terrific. Also nominated for his supporting role, Yoo Hae-jin oozes criminality and effectively conveys his internal war with his urban thug mentality hiding beneath his fitted suits. The actor clearly relishes scenes in which he gains the upper-hand, smarmy and condescending with glee at the misfortune of his rivals and partners.
The Unjust is not simply another continuation of Korean cinema’s distrust of law enforcement agencies; it is an incredibly thrilling and compelling exploration of an array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties, articulated with an intelligent script and visualised with a career-best by director Ryoo Seung-wan. The fast pace, confident stylisation and electric performances make The Unjust one of the best cop thrillers in recent years and a fantastic addition to the genre.