The Unjust is a propulsive police corruption saga that finds director Ryoo Seung-wan recapturing the relentless pace and gallows humour of his earlier hit The City of Violence (2006), while aligning his signature style with topical subject matter. It opens with the public face of law and order as the police attempt to apprehend the perpetrator who has been abducting, mutilating and murdering children for the past three months. Media panic is in overdrive as another body has been discovered and the barely suppressed anger of the citizens of Seoul has led to the dismissal of the Chief Commissioner. A team of officers close in on their main suspect, but blow his head off instead of taking him into custody, and then discover that DNA evidence is inconclusive. Ryoo then goes behind the scenes to speculate on how such mistakes are ‘rectified’. Detective Choi (Hwang Jung-min) is dealing with an internal affairs investigation, but is offered the opportunity to make this problem go away if he can find a scapegoat for the unsolved murders. Once he has decided on the appropriate ‘actor’ for the role, Choi enlists the assistance of gangster Jang (Yu Hae-jin) to frame the fall-guy and to ensure that he follows the script. It seems to be a simple enough way to wrap-up the case and restore public faith in the police force, but Choi’s arrangement with Jang leads to a potentially career-ending conflict with Prosecutor Joo (Ryoo Seung-bum), who supplements his income by assisting Jang’s rival in the building development business.
The cynical worldview of The Unjust is best summarised by Joo’s statement, ‘If you treat people nicely, soon, they’ll walk all over you. If you worry about their feelings, you won’t get any work done.’ Indeed, everyone here is very hard-working, rarely taking any time out from the daily routine of back-stabbing, bribery and ladder-climbing, although Ryoo is keen to show that such ‘public servants’ as Choi and Joo spend more time covering their tracks than putting criminals behind bars. They are both part of a hierarchical state system that functions on favours rather than results; Joo is enjoying a meteoric rise due to familial ties (his father-in-law is a figure of influence), while Choi has been passed over for promotion on three occasions because he is not part of the internal elite. Although they are supposedly on the same side, Choi and Joo soon become adversaries once Ryoo has established the network of corruption that they navigate, with Choi’s street-smart swagger and Joo’s white-collar arrogance serving to emphasise their respective strengths and weaknesses. Their sparring reaches its peak with a meeting at a coffee shop where they lay their cards on the table, pulling out incriminating photographs and telephone records in a game of one-upmanship. Such subordinates as Detective Ma (Ma Dong-Seok) and Assistant District Attorney Kong (Jeong Man-sik) are merely slaves to their selfish pursuits and must tolerate a lot of paper-throwing when things do not go to plan, but would probably behave in a similar manner if appointed to positions of power.
With the case that serves to instigate these internal conflicts – the hunt for a child murderer – being largely neglected to focus on the machinations of the justice department and its similarities with the underworld, The Unjust suggests that the real crime story in South Korea is the one inside the system rather than out on the city streets. None of the characters created by I Saw the Devil (2010) screenwriter Park Hoon-jung have any chance of redemption, and Ryoo jettisons subtlety and moral shading in favour of grandstanding and shouting to show how far removed they are from the social responsibilities that should be their main priority. It’s impossible to root for anyone in particular, but the increasingly desperate survival measures of Choi and Joo are consistently involving. The director still finds room for his darkly comedic streak, with Choi finding out that two potential scapegoats no longer fit the profile because one suffered a stroke following his initial interrogation, while the other has undergone gender reassignment surgery and a supporting character being dispatched in a typically outrageous death-by-elevator scene. There are so many sub-plots in The Unjust that Ryoo risks leaving a few loose-ends, or resorting to contrivance in order to tie all the strands together, but the extended finale brings everything full circle for a satisfying pay-off. A surprise success at the South Korean box office, where it was the eight biggest grossing local release of last year, The Unjust is a compelling thriller which further establishes Ryoo as a superior genre filmmaker.
The Unjust will be shown at the Film Society of New York’s Walter Reade Theater as part of the annual New York Asian Film Festival on Wednesday, July 6 at 3:30 PM and Wednesday July 13 at 9:00PM. Director and actor Ryoo Seung-Wan will be in attendance at the July 13 screening. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.