A police investigation into a serial killer targeting school children is proving fruitless and the situation worsens when the prime suspect is shot dead, leaving little evidence and a dead end. In order to resolve the situation Police Chief Kang enlists the help of Captain Choi in a deal that requires the bending of procedure and personal morals for the prospect of a promotion. The prosecutor assigned to the case, a man called Joo-yang, dislikes Choi and has his own interests at heart – which will only serve to further muddy the waters…
Up until the release of The Unjust it had always been fair to label Ryoo Seung-wan as an ‘Action Director’. With a career that has served to explore the boundaries of ‘action’ cinema – from the gritty, twisting underworld narrative of No Blood No Tears (2002), to fun CGI enhanced martial arts of Arahan (2004), the action drama of Crying Fist (2005) and brutal martial arts showpieces of The City of Violence (2006) – the ‘Action Director’ label was never a back-handed compliment. Ryoo’s films have always displayed an intelligent, playful, often dark but always stunning approach, and have always been all-round entertaining exercises in the action genre. Following the poor box-office response to his comedy action spoof Dachimawa Lee (2008), Ryoo announced that his next project – The Unjust – would be a change in style: a dark, dramatic character piece with a cast headed up by Hwang Jeong-min, Ryoo Seung-beom and Yu Hae-jin.
It’s safe to say that Ryoo set expectations high…
The Unjust is a compact, dark and brooding thriller which differs from anything we’ve seen previously in Ryoo’s earlier work as it’s not directly an ‘action’ movie but a thriller, nonetheless it’s once again an example of Ryoo’s ability to explore the confines of genre cinema. A study of power and its misuse by those in authority, The Unjust is unflinchingly cynical experience. There’s no ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ here, no happy winners and only levels of greed and back-stabbing in search of personal gain. Importantly, far from distancing us from its central protagonists The Unjust manages evoke our sympathy towards its unlikeable bunch of power-grabbers and through subtle changes in tone even manages to push us between who it is exactly that we’re rooting for. It’s a clever journey through grey moral territory, the opening scenes launch us into the middle of an investigation which already seems to have stalled, and from the off-set we’re unsure who our sympathies should lie with. For some The Unjust may well be a frustrating experience as it offers no easy conclusion – it’s unrelenting – and plays with what it is that we expect from not only our thrillers but our law enforcement systems. The script by Park Hoon-jung (who also penned I Saw The Devil) delivers much more robust and layered writing of timely relevance than Kim Jee-woon’s disappointingly shallow (albeit popular) thriller, as well as marking the first time that Ryoo Seung-wan has worked with material that he didn’t originate himself.
The type of film that fully expects its audience to pay attention rather than hand-feeding them information or signposting narrative beats, The Unjust demands your attention and this, along with its dark world-view, can, at times, seem exhausting. That said, it’s not without its humour and the script throws some lighter moments in the first half to keep things moving while gearing itself up for the progressively meaner second half. None of this would work as well as it does if it wasn’t held up by a strong cast, something that The Unjust has by the bucketload: Hwang Jeong-min is, as can usually be expected, solid as Choi, the Police Captain who is willing to bend his morals in order to get the job done, even when it becomes unclear what the job actually is anymore. Ryoo Seung-wan regular Ryoo Seung-beom (the directors brother but who delivers such consistently note-perfect performances that any thoughts of nepotism disappeared years ago) is once again stand-out as the prosecutor who thrives on using information to his advantage in order to get what he wants. Yu Hae-jin completes the central leads and is given a little more room to spread his wings than some of his recent supporting roles, but also has the least screen time. Still, he delivers his scheming thug shtick with a degree of likeability and humour and walks through some of the heavier dramatic scenes with just as much ease. In the supporting cast there’s the likes of Cheon Ho-jin (The Guard Post, Kong Su-chang / 2008) as the Police Chief who enlists Choi to do some dirty work, Ma Dong-seok (The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Kim Jee-woon / 2008) as Choi’s friend and partner in the crime squad, Jeong Man-sik is the put-upon D.A. Assistant to Joo-yang and Oh Don-gi is impresses as an ex-con who gets pulled into events. The strong cast is well utilised as The Unjust weaves throughout the different levels of police, prosecution and the media by focusing on the individuals who inhabit them.
Given the reputation of the director, it might be surprising to find that there’s relatively few action sequences in The Unjust. When any on-screen violence does break out it’s brief and brutal, and serves the narrative rather than distracting. Despite the lack of onscreen mayhem everything moves at a steady pace and builds to a suitably powerful conclusion. Along the way there’s some stunning cinematography from Chun Chung-hoon – who also lensed Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005) – and editors Kim Jae-beom and Kim Sang-bum cut the drama together with the urgency of an action flick. The Unjust is Ryoo’s most visually powerful film yet – for all of the shouting, aggression and the inevitable outbursts of physical violence, it’s during the quiet beats that it really delivers: subdued moments that are as powerful as any of the kicks or punches recorded in Ryoo’s previous work, and with some final shots that manage to speak volumes without uttering a word.
With The Unjust Ryoo Seung-wan applies a change in style that retains the anger, cynicism and brutality of the his previous work – and he still does his best to toy with our expectations – but he does so with (I almost hate to use the word for such an accomplished filmmaker) a maturity which, on the surface, comes with less flash but as a whole delivers a powerful package. In the past he was compared to the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, but following The Unjust the comparisons are along the lines of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese – even these comparisons are just cheap ways of underlining that The Unjust is simply stunning cinema – from this point on labelling Ryoo Seung-wan as simply an ‘Action Director’ is to sell him far too short.
부당거래 (The Unjust)
Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan
Produced by Koo Bon-han , Kim Yun-ho, Ryoo Seung-wan, Kang Hye-jung, Han Jae-duk
Written by Park Hoon-jung
Starring Hwang Jeong-min, Ryoo Seung-beom, Yu Hae-jin, Chun Ho-jin, Ma Dong-seok, Woo Don-gi
The Unjust Image © Filmmaker R & K, Film Train