Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 (2012)
Every country likes to think itself developed and therefore runs its activities through morally perfect institutions. By that I mean those in government will take pride in their parliamentary system, the way their electoral system delivers representative government, the unimpeachable neutrality of its judges, the fairness of its police forces and the investigations they run, and so on. Yet, more often than not, even the most egalitarian of countries has skeletons in its closet. Take France as an example.In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of espionage. As a Jewish officer, he was a convenient scapegoat for the activities of Ferdinand Esterhazy. When evidence of the frame become common knowledge, there was intense political pressure for a retrial and acquittal, but both the army and the judiciary decided admitting their imperfections was too embarrassing to contemplate, so they covered it up. Dreyfus was not exonerated until 1906. All of which brings me to Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 (2012). By any standards this film is a deeply political and modestly savage attack on the morality of the judiciary in South Korea. Perhaps in the broader scale of wrongdoing, it’s not quite on the same level as the Dreyfus case, but it gains its shock-value from the fact this is a recent and ongoing case. As one of the Asian tiger economies, South Korea likes to portray itself as having moved beyond the old days of oppression and corruption. It holds itself out as an example of how civilised it is, blending the best of Western political and economic systems with the more traditional Korean values. This tends to hide the deep roots of some old problems.
Although modern Korea boasts a vibrant export-led economy and a democratic system, this is all relatively new. There has been often violent turmoil with a coup d’état in 1979 followed by the use of martial law to suppress political activity. The nature of the state remained despotic until 1987 when, in the lead up to the Olympic Games, there was a liberalisation. However, economic power remains in the hands of a few chaebol, family controlled corporate groups which initially benefitted from government support, but which are now finding themselves under financial pressure as massive corruption, bribery, fraud and tax evasion becomes harder to hide. In all this, the education system has been manipulated to allow individuals of ability to network and, more importantly, select the next generation of people to assume positions of power and influence. Appointments to the police, prosecuting authority and judiciary have been particularly important in shielding the chaebol from investigation or liability for identified wrongdoing, e.g. the suspension of an embezzlement conviction against Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo. It’s all an overlapping web of cronyism, nepotism and corruption. What makes this worse is that South Korean judges always sit alone. There’s no jury system or any other independent check on their activities.
The genesis of the case described in this film lies in the world of the private universities. Backed by corporate money, they have the power to make or break careers. Once admitted, the majority of students can expect access to top jobs. Fail to get in or underperform, and there’s nowhere to hide. They are more or less unemployable. This makes the entrance exams particularly important. Our hero is Professor Kim Kyung-Ho (Ahn Sung-Ki). He’s outraged not only that one of the questions included in the 1995 entrance exam for Sungkyunkwan University is wrong, but also that the university proposes to cover it up. He sees this as a criminal breach of trust. As a stubborn idealist, he believes universities have a higher duty to their students. The fact this might reveal one of his senior colleagues as incompetent is not relevant. Unfortunately, the university thinks its own reputation is more important and fires the Professor. He and his wife (Na Young-Hee) briefly go to America with their son but, when the law changes to allow Professors to seek reappointment, he and his wife return. As an ex-Alumnus of the University, Judge Park Bong-Joo (Kim Eung-Soo), refuses the application. Outraged, the Professor waits for him as he returns home and threatens him with a crossbow. This leads to a major series of high-profile and politically embarrassing hearings with a succession of judges who feel the honour of their profession is at stake and are intent on locking him up.
An alcoholic lawyer Park Joon (Park Won-Sang) eventually comes to sit beside our Professor as defence counsel. However this is not a happy place to occupy. Our hero trained as a mathematician but has rapidly become an expert in the law. Indeed, he probably knows more about the procedural laws than either the man supposed to be representing him or the judges who are supposed to be trying the case. Instead of allowing his advocate to speak for him, he’s constantly on his feet arguing the law with the judges. Eventually, the judiciary quietly suggest to the prison service that they break his spirit. This leaves Park Joon to run the case, albeit he has the support of a journalist, Jang Eun-Seo (Kim Ji-Ho) who publishes damaging stories as the holes in the prosecution case emerge.
As director and joint screenwriter, the veteran Chung Ji-Young who returns to direction after a long silence, produces a politically effective drama which nicely exposes the rather inept way in which the judiciary sets out to crush this inconvenient man. It’s a beautifully paced drama which balances the story of both the accused and his fallible lawyer in their fight for respect from an establishment that has nothing but contempt for those who oppose it. Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 is a clever exposé of the corruption at the heart of the South Korean state. For the record, the professor’s real name is Kim Myung-Ho and the film is a truthful representation of what happened to him. You should watch it.