Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Writer: Park Hun-Jeong
Producer: Kim Yun-Ho, Gu Bon-Han
Cast: Hwang Jeong-Min, Ryu Seung-Beom, Yu Hae-Jin, Cheon Ho-Jin, Ma Dong-Seok, Jo Young-Jin
Running Time: 119 min.
When I sit down to watch a slick, commercial thriller, this is exactly what I want it to be. The director of “No Blood, No Tears” and “City of Violence” weaves an im-morality tale of police corruption, political maneuvering, and gangland-style justice with no discernible “hero” to root for. The viewer is plunged into the thick of things within the first twenty minutes and forced to gain their bearings in the plot. It’s fairly complex stuff, what with all the backstabbing and murky character motivation going on, especially when you’re trying to follow subtitles at the same time. “The Unjust” is not a movie for people who want to turn off their brain and veg out in front of the TV.
Hwang Jung-min is a top cop in the Seoul police department, despite the fact that he’s from a lower social status and therefore lacks an Academy background – Academy graduation meaning you’re a member of the “in” club and on the short list for promotion. Hwang Jun-min is a little rough around the edges but he knows how to get the job done, which is why the Police Commissioner comes to him with a tricky proposition. The department’s reputation has been marred by their inability to catch a serial killer who is murdering schoolgirls. Hwang Jung-min is tasked with a simple mission: deliver a suspect to justice, one that can be prosecuted and put behind bars whether he’s truly guilty or not. Eager to ascend the ranks and make good with the Commissioner, Hwang Jung-min agrees and drags his team of detectives down with him.
Meanwhile, the police department and the prosecutor’s office are divided over a recent development contract. Hwang Jun-min makes buddy-buddy with a former gangster turned developer played by Hae-jin Yu, while the chief prosecutor (the director’s brother, Seung-beom Ryu) sides with Yu’s more respected rival. All these underhanded dealings will come to a head when supercop Hwang Jung-min is forced to materialize a suspect in the murder case. Once the pieces are in position on the board, it’s only a matter of time before they’re all knocked down.
Seung-wan Ryoo directs with his signature flashy style, which is evident from the moment a suspect is shot in the head during the opening credits and his blood splatter helps swipe to the film’s title. Fortunately, the camera work is always in service of telling the story and the film moves at a lightning pace even with a two hour runtime. The plot and the way it plays out bear more than a passing resemblance to “Infernal Affairs” or even its American remake “The Departed,” only this time there’s no Tony Leung/Leonardo Dicaprio for the audience to relate to. Everyone is out for their own self-interest but even these loathsome characters remain immensely watchable thanks to the charismatic cast, particularly prosecutor Seung-beom Ryu (“Arahan,” “No Mercy”). Korean society as a whole is portrayed as rife with corruption: police corroborate with gangsters, prosecutors are in bed with business interests, and public officials’ only real concern is advancing their career or making good headlines. Taking inspiration from real life scandals in the region, “The Unjust” is cynical to its core.
Action junkies may well recall that director Seung-wan Ryoo’s previous films were loaded to the gills with choreographed violence. “The Unjust” isn’t quite so action-packed but there should be enough scuffles, including several full body Judo-style takedowns, to satisfy the average viewer’s brutality quotient. Mostly, the emphasis is on the screenplay’s countless twists and turns and brilliant performances from actors like Yoo Hae-jin, who seems to relish the chance to play an over-the-top, rubber-faced gangster turned businessman. If you’d be interested in an unpredictable thriller involving cops, crooks, and suits, with just enough humor and bloodshed to keep things interesting, then “The Unjust” is a great night’s entertainment. Last year “The Unjust” became the biggest box office success yet for director Seung-wan Ryoo, and it serves as further proof that Korean cinema is currently enjoying a commercial and creative peak.
The film is now streaming on Netflix Instant. While the picture is not HD, it still looks decent and the subtitles are well-translated and easy to read. Highly recommended.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8.5/10