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Unbowed - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Bureojin hwasal

South Korea 2011

Thriller, Drama

Chung Ji-young

Ahn Sung-kee
Park Won-sang
Kim Ji-ho
Nah Yeong-hee
Moon Seong-geun
Lee Kyeong-yeong

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Story: Kim Kyeong-ho (Ahn Sung-kee), a mathematics professor, is dismissed by his university because he argues against the unfair procedures of the university comnittee. After he tried to take legal actions against his dismissal through several instances without success he one day stands in front of the judge in charge and threatens him with a crossbow. Afterwards professor Kim is on trial, because he is said to have hurt a judge with a crossbow arrow. Kim soon becomes an expert in judiciary and more or less defends himself in the following hearings. He is only willing to work together with a certain lawyer, Park Joon (Park Won-sang), an alcoholic who is headed south. Kim's wife (Nah Yeong-hee) establishes contact to Park, who at first refuses to take on the case. Eventually, he accepts, though, and finds out that some of the supposed facts are conflicting. When the judge happens to be unimpressed by the evidence that speaks in favor of Kim's innocence Park calls in the media with the help of the journalist Jang Eun-seo (Kim Ji-ho).

Review: It is astounding if a movie, which openly attacks a deficient legal system, actually manages to become a box-office hit. This is above everything else the result of the story around a mathematics professor, who isn't willing to put up with a corrupt "constitutional state" anymore. "Unbowed" is based on a true case and once again instigated a debate in South Korea about the fact that the legal practice in the country is oftentimes absolutely arbitrary and especially high-ranking officials, politicians and company directors don't need to spend a single day behind bars, while the normal citizen has to grin and bear it when corrupt judges don't want to see their reputation damaged. As a courtroom drama "Unbowed" maybe is picking chords that seem familiar, but it is successful in doing so.

Unbowed - Film Screenshot 11

A point of criticism the movie often has to face is that the professor gets glorified and that there is maybe too much of a black-and-white drawing. But that isn't sustainable for several reasons. First of all, we never see whether Kim has actually shot the arrow or not, which means that we can only make predictions based on evidence like everyone else, and secondly Kim is so self-righteous and a wiseacre par excellence that it is truely difficult to sympathize with him at all times. That we still do after all is most of the time thanks to the subtle performance of actor Ahn Sung-kee ("Fair Love", "Sector 7), who nonetheless doesn't simply try to make a charismatic impression. A difficult person that therefore not everyone will get along with, but Ahn is giving his best.

Unbowed - Film Screenshot 12

Serving as the actual sympathetic figure is Park Won-sang ("Paradise Murdered"), of course, who plays a drunkard on the road of finding himself. He shares an unusual friendship with a female journalist, which could lead to more, but somehow he just sticks to remaining faithful to his wife. He may be a lawyer but that is only one more reason why he doesn't believe in the Korean legal system and he rails against it on more than one occasion, while Kim even in prison is holding up high the code of law like the bible and stresses how great he thinks the law is. Naturally, and unfortunately, law is a matter of interpretation and all the judges in Kim's case seem to be corrupt to the marrow. When eventually obvious questions concerning the evidence turn up and the judges despite all reason and logic don't approve re-evaluation of evidence, frustration starts to pile up in the viewer.

It's just this kind of frustration that constitutes the movie's engine, which keeps things going. How is it possible that in a country, which calls itself a democracy and is also called that by others, there is so much injustice going on? After all, democracy is still very young in South Korea and so everything is still centering around money and saving face. Accordingly, it seems that Kim isn't found not guilty because any credibility of the judges would be lost should they suddenly change their opinion. At least that's the impression you get, because the gaps and mistakes that come to light during the giving of evidence and testimonies are so grave that you just have to laugh in despair. "Unbowed" may be a courtroom drama, nevertheless it tries to strike some comparatively more lighthearted chords, even towards the end. And this even though facing so much injustice is actually making you want to cry.

Unbowed - Film Screenshot 13

Fortunately, a good number of Koreans are aware of the horrendous legal conditions in their country so that the movie wasn't just successful at the box office, but also lead to new debates. In cinematic respects director Chung Ji-young, who shot the docu "Ari Ari - The Korean Cinema" before, has worked neatly, including an HD-look, but sadly "Unbowed" becomes a bit too courtroom-heavy towards the end. Moreover, the screenplay is a bit jumpy at times and would have needed some finishing touches. Especially the fact that "Unbowed" is based on a real case gives the film some special weight, though, and thus stands as a brave examination by South Korean moviemakers of a legal system that looks good on paper but sadly isn't applied adequately.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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