Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | The Unforgiven (2005) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Seo Jang-won, Yoon Jong-bin, Han Soo-hyun, Lim Hyun-sung, Kim Seong-mi, Son Sang-beom

A young student of Chung-ang University, Yoon Jong-bin, put forth his graduating thesis film in the form of The Unforgiven, a micro-budget drama that is unapologetic in its harsh depictions of how many young men are mistreated within their required 2 years stint in the military, something that South Korea does, among other countries. This little feature went on to play in festivals, and even bag a few awards, and has become a quite respected film among Korean cinephiles, myself now included.

Lee Seung-young (Seo Jang-won) is a fresh face, newly recruited to the military. He keeps to himself but doesn't hesitate to speak up when others are in trouble. He finds himself a quick target of harassment by Su-dong (Lim Hyun-sung), who feels a need to push his rank and seniority over others, resulting in constant bullying and mistreatment of fellow soldiers. He is an entirely vile and heinous character, and Lim Hyun-sung plays him to disgusting perfection. The one person who comes to Lee's aid is Yoo Tae-jeong, who is played by Yoon alumni Ha Jung-woo, who really needs no introduction at this point. The two were old friends growing up, and Lee has moved up within the ranks and can keep Su-dong off his case, temporarily at least. The price to be paid, however, is that Yoo roughens up Lee in front of the guys and, behind closed doors, breaks down. He comforts Lee and explains to him that their friendship must remain a complete secret and that he will help him when possible, but things are just a specific way in the military, and he must abide by the laws and hierarchy no matter what. Lee is a very compassionate young man and wishes to change things as he plays out his mandatory time within and hopes to rise through the ranks himself.

As you can imagine, things don't play out how Lee envisions them, and what lies ahead for him and others will definitely leave the viewer in a state of rage. I don't wish to dive into the details, as a lot happens in this roughly two-hour journey, but it is a very tough watch at times and can be a bit jarring due to its very micro-budget aesthetic. It didn't bother me personally, but I could see others being turned off by the lack of polish in production. It adds a layer of realism and gives the picture an almost stage-like quality, but it never feels theatrical, and the performances are raw and very real. Even director Yoon steps in to play Heo Ji-hoon, another victim of brutality inflicted upon him, who becomes a pivotal character in the story and is as remarkable as others. Yoon went on to play a riff on this character in Zhang Lu's A Quiet Dream, and while he hasn't done it often, he is quite the performer, and I always find myself enamored by his presence. I enjoyed seeing many of these actors at a much younger age and phase in their careers, giving it their all without the pressure of being stars. Again, that authenticity helps keep this movie elevated above its limitations. There are some moments where the scene is left to play out by the actors for several minutes, and this just sort of sets in motion how great of an actor Ha Jung-woo is, even all the way in 2005.

The only time The Unforgiven stumbles a bit for me is just with some of the scenes set in the present (the film is told in flashback, which I didn't mention beforehand). It all pays off well (in a sense) by the end, but it just didn't feel as focused as the military present scenes. Still, the acting, the atmosphere, and the storytelling all just culminate into something truly remarkable, especially given that this was a student's thesis film. It shows the promise and talent that Yoon Jong-bin would continue to reveal to the world as the years went on. I think he is a great filmmaker, and this is the genesis of his creations and a film I'm glad to have seen. Unfortunately, at least to my knowledge, it doesn't have a great print, but it is available in lower-end physical releases. Hopefully, one day, someone out there will give it a proper fresh release and help the world see this underrated gem. I know it won't be for everyone, and some will just think it is misery for misery's sake, but I think it has a lot to be said, and unfortunately still resonates with many a man to this day. It really explores toxic masculinity in a way that I think many films haven't, at least not with the level of brutal honesty that is presented here.

Written by Josh Parmer

No comments:

Post a Comment