Most of the Hall Theater is full for the only showing of Seung-wan Ryoo’s The Unjust. Fantasia is more popular with each passing year, a blessing for the festival but somewhat of a curse for me: the lines are getting longer; the movies sell out faster; the screenings are more crammed, even though there’s a bigger festival schedule. Introduced by the Cine-Asia staff, the charismatic director of the film tells us about his work before Daniel, the festival’s mascot, switches off the lights in his trademark style, under the continuous hollers of the audience. Set in modern Korea, The Unjust tells the tale of a hunt for a serial killer targeting children who’s terrorizing South Korea. After the accidental shooting of a suspect in the case, the president gets involved and demands that the matter be resolved by any means necessary. Passed over for promotion numerous times, Officer Choi Cheol-gi is promised a new post if he closes the case. But his dirty tactics will pit him against a young up-and-coming prosecutor who struggles to establish a connection between Officer Choi and Jang Suk-gu, a known gangster.
The most interesting feature of The Unjust is its main actor and star, Jeong-min Hwang. I first discovered him in the stirring Private Detective (2009) at Fantasia where he played a private eye at the beginning of the 20th century Korea looking to discover the murderer of a government official’s son. Even in that film, his unconventional look and magnetic stare were mesmerizing, holding on his own the bulk of Private Detective. Last year, Jeong-min was phenomenal in the Korean historical epic, Lee Joon-ik’sBlades of Blood, as the blind swordsman Hwang Jeong-hak on a collision course with powerful warlord Lee Mong-hwak and a grandiose fight for the love (and future) of their country. His performance in that movie is as powerful as Pacino’s in Scent of a Woman; he’s that good. Here, although Jeong-min is one of the best things about The Unjust, his talent is lost in a sea of convoluted plot points and uninteresting characters.
As a gritty police thriller, The Unjust belongs to an imposing subgenre (Internal Affairs, Copland, Infernal Affairs), one that has primarily been concerned with corruption within the bodies of justice, involving warped justice like the use of a scapegoat or the collusion with organized crime. The movie is also concerned with the everyday pressures that lead to that corruption. For director Seung-wan, that great evil is rooted in institutional politics and mismanagement. As they say, shit trickles down; and, as it does, it sullies everything in its path. David Simon’s oeuvre (Generation Kill, The Wire, Treme) has been devoted to exploring and denouncing the gaps that mismanagement have created in our modern institutions. The Unjust’s storyline is reminiscent of The Wire’s seasons 3 and 5 where Simon has the pyramid management model fail consistently, first around the war on drugs, then on the search for a fabricated serial killer. Corruption here has other roots; chiefly, the schism between Academy-trained police officers and non-Academy ones, evoking the destructive nature of social class distinctions. Turned down for promotion several times, we get the sense that Officer Choi turns to corruption as a way to climb up the institutional ladder, sure, but also out of frustration, resentment and revenge. It’s representative of the flash economic and technical growth of South Korea and how the country’s socio-politically been trying to catch up, struggling to reconcile tradition and modernity. Even with all those fascinating aspects, The Unjust is a heavy plot monster-type, sinuous and convoluted, where characters are thrust into contrived situations guided by the Story Imperative, following a sense of rigid screenplay logic rather any realistic phenomenon, its irregular comedy fizzling out by mid-point. It is, at times, tedious and a mostly underwhelming film. When I leave the theatre, I’m concerned about my choices for the festival. By this point, maybe it would be wise to include more genre films (horror, sci-fi) and scale back on the Asian films. INFO: The Unjust