So End of Animal hadn’t delivered, neither what I wanted from it or what it wanted to give me, but that was OK because I still had two South Korean films left to see and surely one of these would sate me, right? Enter The Unjust. Exeunt bore- nope, nup, this one didn’t hit that Southern spot either but for altogether different reasons.
As the title suggests this is a story about justice, more specifically the lack of it, and as one would expect from such a thematic center it is a story set amidst the murder, mayhem and immorality of that old eternal battle between cops and robbers. Sounds good so far right? I bet that you can already imagine the unbelievable fight scenes and the unimaginable violence and the utterly unpredictable plot that The Unjust must have, unfortunately though this isn’t your average South Korean film either and so none of those elements are delivered. What we get instead is a dialogue driven thriller of bureaucracy run amok with unbelievable file reading scenes, unimaginable politicking and an utterly predictable plot.
Now you may be thinking, ‘Well that’s racist, not all their films have to looks the same you know,’ and if so you’re right, overly PC and a bit of a bore but right nonetheless. I would never dislike this movie just because it isn’t inherently kin to Oldboy or A Bittersweet Life; I disliked it for what was on the inside and from there my unmet expectations were just the extra slap in the face that finished me off. If anything I’m normally more likely to favor films that display the diplomatic approach – talking rather than fighting – but this one simply isn’t all that good; it’s a failure on its own terms.
It’s first big mistake was in making a movie with an ensemble cast; some film-makers can pull this off (See: Robert Altman) and it regularly gets remarkable results on television but these are exceptions -absolute masters and alternate mediums both deserve different expectations from the rest of us – to the rule that quite rightly says,’ No sir, not here you don’t.’ The film starts and it is a good twenty to thirty minutes before we have any understanding of the structure or storyline, so scattered are the vignettes. This crack in the construction is then made cataclysmic by the fact that none of the characters are all that interesting, nor are they ever very engaging individually; even if forced I’m not sure if I could choose one that I would like to have as a protagonist.
The two most important characters in the film though are those shown above: on the right we have Choi Cheol-Gi, a righteous and respected but lower class detective – there is a class system in the Korean police force it seems, with a line drawn between those who were able to afford Academy training and those who simply enlisted -, and on the left is Joo-Yang, an up and coming young prosecutor. I’m not spoiling anything when I say that they don’t get along; what is interesting though is that not only are we not told which side to take but we’re also never given a single piece of evidence that could push us one way or the other.
Again, crafting your characters ambiguously can be amazing when done right, but The Unjust is probably a good example of what not to do. The characters all exist in this murky, grey world of corruption, corporate espionage and the commercialization of justice and so I admit that it would be counter-intuitive for the film to follow a Big Damn Hero as he battled his way through the red tape towards the evil mastermind behind all the bureaucracy, but there is a middle ground between that and this; a movie in which the characters all seem as despicable and disposable as each other. You could certainly argue that this was the writers intention, that they are making some point about morality in the modern world through this technique; but I would argue that they are being overzealous in putting the metaphor before basic film elements like plot and character.
There is a semblance of a good plot in here though and once the film found a foothold – which wasn’t until late into its run, given the size of the cast – it rather became a potently tragic one, especially when you consider the final twist in the case. Speaking of getting to the plot late, should I give you a synopsis? The public are up in arms over a man who has been brutally killing schoolgirls but the police accidentally killed the prime suspect before they could prove anything officially before a jury, or more importantly the press, and so a special unit is assembled to find a ringer who can take the fall for them.
As I said, interesting, but because of the execution the idea gets too easily lost in amongst all the different levels of power, the different political games and the different sides of the story on display. It’s as if the people behind this picture saw The Wire and said to themselves, ‘I want to make that’ and then tried to do so within one hundred and twenty minutes. Since I’ve seen the show I could understand most of the shorthand when it came to stats, promotions, corporations etc. but those without such prior knowledge will likely miss most of this material, which is a shame since it is the most interesting part of the whole movie (which probably says something).
If its Faux-South Korean-ness was the slap in the face that finished me off then the subtitles on the print I saw was the ring on a finger from the hand that slapped me. They were virtually in Engrish with every second sentence missing a vital preposition or some useful punctuation. I can certainly comprehend the complexity of achieving an accurate translation, in fact I often wonder if anyone can ever actually achieve such a thing, but it doesn’t seem like they even tried for this one as it appears to be the kind of direct, word-for-word effort that Babelfish might spit out.
This did give me an idea on how to end my review though and this is it: wait for the American re-make. The film was wildly successful in South Korea – perhaps there is some great material in there that was simply lost in translation? – and isn’t too different in form than say Infernal Affairs which was of course later made into The Departed by Scorsese. If I know anything about the American’s it is this: when adapting they will simplify and they will add action, and in this case that is exactly what the original needed to work. So keep your eyes out for that, but leave them closed for this.