September 1, 2012

Unbowed: Math Professor's Case Doesn't Add Up in Court

Jeong Ji-yeong's courtroom drama Unbowed starts off about the defense attorney, shifts to being about the defendant then ends up not being about anyone. What we learn about the lawyer (Park Won-sang) is that he's an alcoholic with a bumpy marriage, a flirty nature, and a strained relationship with his co-workers. He's not particularly likable. (Blame must be placed in part on Park who's drunk scenes are truly execrable.) But he at least knows he's fallible.

Not so his client, a mathematics professor (Ahn Song-kee) who, from what I can tell, was appropriately fired from his university job for not knowing the difference between perpendicular and parallel. After fleeing to the U.S. with his wife and son in tow, he decides to come back to fight for his position and ends up bringing a crossbow to the apartment building of a judge who dismissed his case. Does he shoot? Does it matter?

Far from being contrite, the teacher is sure he's getting the short end of the stick from the university system, the legal system, the police department, the media, and so on. He could be right but he's so damned arrogant that it's hard to rally behind him as he spits out every code that's being violated from his well-underlined law book to one smug judge (Lee Kyeong-yeong) after another (Moon Sung-keun). Like him or not, he's the most interesting part of the movie so when he temporarily drops out of the story after getting raped in prison, the film loses its preferred protagonist. By the time he returns, you forget his underdog status (which makes him somewhat sympathetic) and just remember his jerkiness.

Believe it or not, Unbowed is based on a real story. I don't doubt that someone could have the misfortune of facing a series of amoral judges or that an editor would shut down a story because he just didn't want to deal with the repercussions or that a woman would stay with her husband after he slept over another woman's place. What is hard to believe is that someone thought this particular trial merited a cinematic treatment. It doesn't. Or if it does, Unbowed needed a screenwriter with a stronger sense of character, actors who knew who to play drunk, and a cinematographer with a richer palette.

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