By Lee Hyo-won
Korea has recently seen the transformative power of cinema, as the dramatization of an actual sexual abuse case in "Silenced" ("Dogani" in Korean, a.k.a. "The Crucible") ignited public outrage and eventually compelled a reinvestigation of the events.
"Unbowed", inspired by a 2007 "crossbow terror" incident, has all the right ingredients to stir a reaction from viewers as it condemns the purported culpability of local legal authorities. But any effect the film may have should be attributed to the cool-headed critical stance of director Chung Ji-young. Even the very loud and clear social messages "Unbowed" transmits can be first and foremost enjoyed for entertainment's sake.
Now in his 60s, Chung demonstrates that he still has a knack for tackling social issues as he did in his prime, and more importantly, an even greater knack for tastefully orchestrating dramatic tension onscreen. This comeback piece ended a 13-year hiatus and received a 13-minute ovation after premiering at the Busan Film Festival in October, and it's not surprising to see why - he avoids brash sentimentality and sensationalism in capturing a legal battle between a college professor and judge, giving way to honest, frills-free storytelling that grips the viewer throughout.
Four years ago math professor Kim Myung-ho was sentenced to a four-year prison term for shooting Seoul High Court Judge Park Hong-woo with a crossbow (sometimes reality is indeed stranger than fiction). Kim was angry that the judge ruled against his claims of being unjustly fired from his university.
Actor Ahn Seong-gi, mostly known for warm, fatherly roles, brings a surprising edginess in portraying the academic, renamed Kim Gyeong-ho in the movie. "Unbowed" proceeds quickly from the scene of the crime to sensational news coverage of the incident which the Seoul High Court dubs "terrorism against the judicial system".
As with most legal dramas, the film tries to piece the puzzle together in the courtroom. Kim is immediately introduced as an eccentric who does not hesitate to fire one lawyer after another on the spot when he does not feel adequately defended. "It's about proving the truth rather than simply winning", he says. The professor finds unlikely support in alcoholic lawyer Park Joon (humorously played by funnyman Park Won-sang) and gung-ho journalist (actress Kim Ji-ho).
He admits pointing a crossbow was wrong but argues that he never shot the judge; sooner or later the viewer begins to side with him as contradicting testimonies and lack of sufficient evidence - such as a broken bow that goes missing - work in his favor. The autodidact makes use of his prison hours to read legal dictionaries and texts, and goes on to point out a judge's "breach" of terms - according to his own interpretations of the law - and provides legal advice to fellow inmates. Yet the judges keep siding with the prosecution, and viewers are bound to feel a cathartic release every time our unbending protagonist leaves even some of the most charismatic opponents utterly speechless.
But the movie does not brand characters as good or evil, nor does it romanticize or denounce them. It does not sugarcoat biting aspects of reality either. While Kim carries on with his head held high, the strength of his character does not protect him from horrific human rights violations or marginalization by the masses. "Unbowed" celebrates the spirit of holding onto one's convictions, and the dear cost it entails. It becomes all the more compelling because it is based on an ongoing battle.
"Unbowed", released by NEW, opens on Jan. 19.
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards