Writer-director Lee Il-hyeong’s incredibly assured directorial debut A Violent Prosecutor, in the vein of Inside Men (2015, dir. Woo Min-ho), centers around the male homosocial triangle of corruption whose three points are gangsters, prosecutors, and politicians. In fact, during one of the film’s montages, titular prosecutor Byeon Jae-wook (Hwang Jeong-min) explicitly spells out that it is this steely triangle that he is up against after he is framed for the murder of a suspect and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. While in prison, Byeon takes it upon himself to reopen the case after gradually realising that he has been framed by one who is close to him. Diverging from Inside Men is the film’s other, more comedic facet represented by thirty-something conman Han Chi-won (Kang Dong-won), with whom Byeon becomes acquainted in prison and is knowledgeable about the forces behind the frame. Though they make an improbable pair in terms of character, they emerge as a dynamic duo in terms of their skills; both are equipped with smarts, Byeon’s academic and straight, Han’s street and crooked, while Byeon sometimes resorts to fraudulent behaviour and part of Han’s con game is his fake identity of a studious young man educated in Pennsylvania. Their rapport, characterised by a push-pull between fraternity and mentorship, is the film’s heart and source of suspense, comedy, and overall narrative drive. Impeccably paced, written, and arranged in terms of shifting between dramatic and comical notes, no doubt director Lee will be the film industry’s darling henceforth. He manages to splice together a kind of buddy film and crime/law drama to come up with what is essentially a story of redemption for both Byeon and Han, while bringing out the expressively versatile talent in his star actors.
At the start of the film, Byeon demonstrates why he is a ‘violent prosecutor’: he abuses his power and influence; he assaults those related to cases he is working on; and he betrays a strong touch of arrogance and self-righteousness. He even states to Woo Jong-gil (Lee Sung-min), an ambitious up-and-coming politician with dubious ties, ‘Sometimes you can only fix bad habits with a beating.’ The film conveys these characteristics through a limited number of scenes only, but through Hwang’s quality of performance and Lee’s effective, economic writing and direction, Byeon is presented as almost deserving of a comeuppance. He receives just that (and more) as he is working on a case, and suddenly finds himself in a cell with those whom he had prosecuted during his career. In this way, Lee merges the redemption story and the pursuit of justice in a highly sparing way.
Just as economical and abruptly, the buddy film develops about half an hour into the film, when Han arrives at the same prison five years later. Despite a rocky start to their rapport, Han allows himself to be taken under Byeon’s wing, the prime motivation being a dismissed case and newfound freedom. Truth be told, calling the film partly a buddy film is a bit misleading. Byeon and Han have only a handful of scenes together, and even less so when the latter’s case is dismissed and he is released into the world again. Moreover, the film devotes substantial time to Han’s own individual exploits outside of Byeon’s legal issues and outside of prison, so that Han is a fully developed character with his own arc instead of being a mere accessory to Byeon’s plans.
On this last point, a substantial source of the film’s engaging, cheeky comedy is Kang’s exuberant performance as Han — a great foil to Hwang’s more subdued, stoic performance. Kang is allowed to be a veritable chameleon here, in helping Byeon’s case and pursuing his own swindling vocation simultaneously; while still in prison, his conman persona even gives way to a kind of nod to Alain Delon’s Tom Ripley in Purple Noon (1960) when he has to memorise a signature. His facial expressions alone rise to the occasion: from maintaining his fake identity as an English-speaking, upright citizen, pompously throwing curt English phrases here and there; masking as an up-and-coming prosecutor to get into the tight circle of attorneys with ties, ambitions, and methods as dubious as those of Woo; dancing in support of Woo’s election campaign; to outrageously flirting with every woman he comes across. Fulfilling his end of the bargain also gives a different perspective and dimension to Byeon’s case and against whom he is fighting. Through Han’s impersonations and activities, the web of corruption reveals itself to be convoluted and not easily stamped out; and, increasingly, the more cutthroat methods of which they are all capable in order to save their hide and/or achieve their ambitions.
At the same time, part of the film’s appeal is witnessing how Byeon and Han’s smarts translate into tactics that are able to crack open doors towards the root of the case. In this way, the film is like a social experiment, particularly when Han adopts a persona that tickles the egos of those who occupy the outer circles of corruption, examining a social malaise among male-dominated sectors in South Korean society.
With its exclusive cast of male actors (with the exception of one secondary female character), as in Inside Men, the remasculinisation of Korean cinema continues alive and well, following the title of cinema scholar Kyung Hyun Kim’s 2004 book. Following through with the comparison, unlike Inside Men, A Violent Prosecutor does not contain any scenes in which the male characters objectify women to an unsettling degree, as part of the accoutrements of corruption. It is also less flashy and elaborate in its storytelling but ends up being the more riveting of the two in terms of character delineation and relationships.
A Violent Prosecutor is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Friday July 8 at 6:15pm at the SVA Theatre. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.