WTF 157: Unbowed (2011)

WTF ASIA celebrates three years of WTFness with a film inspired by the true story of a guy on trial for…attacking a judge with…a crossbow…in 2007…who has a crossbow in 2007?

Available in Canadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 102 minutes.

 

 

 

The movie starts with the scene in question. It is the 15th of January 2007. A man named Kim Kyung-ho has been standing in an apartment stairway for hours, just waiting and waiting. Do people pass him by on the stairs? Not really; they tend to use the elevator. As the day turns to evening, he opens his bag, takes out the crossbow, and loads an arrow.

A man arrives at the apartment, judge Park Bong-joo. A security guard greets him outside, takes him to the elevator, and goes back outside. Bong-joo waits for the elevator to arrive and then Kyung-ho approaches. He points the crossbow at Bong-joo, demanding that he confess having overridden the law.

And…the scene cuts to news coverage. Former professor Kim Kyung-ho has allegedly shot Judge Park Bong-joo in the abdomen with a crossbow after losing his professorship reinstatement in court. Bong-joo was rushed to the hospital while Kyung-ho was arrested for challenging constitutionalism and attacking the Judiciary.

Park Jun is a lawyer who has…not been faring very well as of late. He is hungover and his soon-to-be former client of three years promises to pay him when the union members are reinstated, but not before then. Jun just wants the money. His assistant, Lee, tries to calm matters down, but it does not work and the client leaves. Jun exclaims that he is going to quit when a woman enters his office.

The woman is Kim Kyung-ho’s wife and…uh…does not get a name. Anyways, she has traveled 300 km from Seoul to the city of Changwon because Kyung-ho had asked for Jun to represent him, as Jun had worked on cases involving dismissed professors in the past. Jun has heard about the case, and is wary of taking it, but he asks for the full backstory anyways.

In the early 1990s, Kim Kyung-ho was a university entrance exam evaluation team. In January of 1995, he noticed an error in one of the mathematics questions presented by a Professor Choi. Choi was, of course, humiliated, but Kyung-ho thought that all should be fine as long as they grade it a no-score or the highest score. The others, however, feared that doing so would be an admission that they messed up, making the entire Mathematic Department look like fools. The powers that be decided to create another official answer sheet and use that to regrade the papers. Kyung-ho stated that that would change who passes and fails, but was told that reputation of the university is at stake here. He argued that this is a breach of trust, and refused to accept this decision.

As a result, Kyung-ho became a faculty outcast and did not receive tenure the following year. He eventually filed a lawsuit to reinstate his position, but the school reserved the right to reissue tenure or deny it. He eventually moved to America with his wife and son. They stayed there until March of 2005, when he found out that a new law was passed that allowed university faculty excluded from tenure track to have another chance for re-evaluation. His wife does not want to go back, but he insists that this is his chance.

So, they go back to South Korea and Kyung-ho makes his case before a judge. But it turns out that they judge had graduated from the school that had dismissed him, so he was once again dismissed. He appealed immediately, and that is when Kim Kyung-ho first met Judge Park Bong-joo. Bong-joo seemed like he would be better than the last judge, but he was not. Kyung-ho was convinced that the university had fabricated evidence against him and that Bong-joo accepted it without question. And that is the backstory.

Park Jun sort of agrees to take the case, but Mrs. Kim seems less enthused. His behavior seemed unreliable, she had heard him scream about quitting, and she found out that he had been drinking alcohol during their conversation. She tells him that she will call him when she gets back to Seoul, which means that she won’t. Lee seems to think that it would be a high-profile case, and that he would become famous regardless of whether he wins or loses. Jun, however, worries that the constant travel between Seoul and Changwon would render the case unprofitable.

Speaking of Seoul, Jun goes to a courthouse in Seoul and meets with another lawyer, who provides him a fraud case, along with an advance of 5 million won. I don’t know, I have seen Better Call Saul, and 5 million won does not sound like a lot for a lawyer. In any case, he is to stay in Seoul overnight while this other guy works out the details. Jun is not really enthused about this whole deal.

Jun notices Mrs. Kim in the courthouse and tracks her down to the courtroom of the crossbow case. He sits down at an empty seat, and gets so wrapped up in the case that he does not realize that he is sitting next to Jang Eun-seo, a journalist whom he had known years ago. Anyways, Park Bong-joo is recounting what happened that night, saying that Kim Kyung-ho shot him with an arrow and they got into a bit of a wrestling match. Park’s driver and the security guard separated them. Park gave the security guard the arrow, which had gotten bent, and told him to take good care of it. He told the driver to call the police, and then he returned to the elevator.

Kyung-ho’s lawyer asks how the arrow got a blunt tip. Bong-joo admits that he does not know, and then continues on with his story. Kyung-ho interjects and accuses Bong-joo of lying, just as he had lied back in the tenure-track reinstatement trial. His lawyer tries to discretely get him to shut up, but he keeps going, bringing up specific laws and articles in the constitution. The judge tells him to stop prattling on about irrelevant matters. Kyung-ho demands that his lawyer object to this trial, which gets the attendants muttering. The lawyer…uh…let’s Kyung-ho do it himself, which he does…and then he fires the lawyer right there. The trial is over for the day.

Jun and Eun-seo leave the courthouse together and Jun…starts to flirt really blatantly at her. Or something. Dude, you have an angry wife and two kids at home. She takes it in stride, I guess…look, this is a rather awkward part of the movie and it did not get less awkward upon rewatching, so I will just skip to the next part. They are about to get drinks when Mrs. Kim calls out to Eun-seo. And so, Mrs. Kim and Jun are reintroduced and it is also awkward, but maybe deliberately so.

So, Jun and Eun-seo go for drinks. I do like the little detail that Eun-seo stops him from pouring his own drink, only to pour it for him herself, as is custom. It implies that he is more used to drinking by himself. Anyways, they are pretty drunk by the time Eun-seo asks him why he did not take the Kim case, and he responds that the whole thing is ridiculous. Eun-seo prefers to think of it as a David and Goliath situation, though her reasoning does not quite make sense. Just then Jun gets a call from that lawyer from before. The case went to another attorney and he wants the 5 million won back. Jun promises to return it in a year and hangs up. Well, Kim has no lawyer, and Jun is suddenly available. And Eun-seo is disappointed.

Time to go. Jun asks if he can sleep over at her place. No. Heh…oh she was not kidding. And neither was he. Egads, Jun can be a creep around her. She points him to the sauna across the street from her apartment. He almost gets hit by a car while crossing the street.

The next day, Eun-seo meets with Mrs. Kim and a few supporters who have their own grudges against the judiciary. A few of them felt happy when Kyung-ho fired his lawyer for being a pushover. But now he does not have a lawyer. Eun-seo has someone in mind, but thinks that Mrs. Kim does not like him. Mrs. Kim knows who she is talking about and does not look happy. Then again, she never does.

Park Jun meets Kim Kyung-ho in prison and asked why he chose him over more distinguished attorneys. Kyung-ho tells him that other lawyers, including the one whom he had just fired, wanted him to apologize and settle even though he is innocent. Innocent? But he shot a man with a crossbow. Kyung-ho says that he did not shoot him, and then asks Jun about his drinking problem. Jun notices that the official prison transcribers (I don’t know their official names) are writing down that comment and tells them to leave off that part.

This gets Kyung-ho and Jun into an argument about the rules. Kyung-ho is a stickler for the rules, and says that things go bad only when people disobey them. The law itself is beautiful. Jun, the lawyer, retorts that the law is crap, full of contradictions, and has historically been merely a means for the powerful to trample everyone else underfoot. Kyung-ho calls it perfect. When Jun calls him a conservative, he agrees, at least to the extent that conservativism is about following socially agreed principles. And he intends on using these principles against the judges who did him wrong. Well then, Jun reasons, Kyung-ho will do a fine job on his own. And he leaves.

Eun-seo finds Jun going on another bender, and tells him that she had worked really hard to change Mrs. Kim’s mind about him, only for him to squander it all. He tells her that Kyung-ho does not need a lawyer. He mutters something about quitting and, when Lee calls, he just says to clear out the office and put it up for sale. And then he hangs up. Eun-seo ends up driving his passed-out self all the way back to Changwon, and to the court house the next day.

Eun-seo hangs out with Lee and gets caught up with how Jun has managed to become so different from how she had remembered him. Apparently, Jun was the only labor rights lawyer to refuse to join a protest in support of a huge strike in Changwon three years ago, fearing that they would be bloodshed.  And from that point, he was scapegoated. Since laborers would not hire him, debts piled up and he became an alcoholic. All of this surprises Eun-seo, as he had been a pivotal figure in a well-known protest three years before that. Lee explains that Jun had incited the protest in the first place and pretty much provoked the police to brutally attack them. But the police had left him alone, as he was a lawyer, and not a target. Perhaps he would have felt solidarity with the workers had he also been beat up; instead, he felt like he was the one responsible for all of their injuries that he had witnessed and suffered no consequences other than extreme guilt that has haunted him ever since. He became so pitiful that Lee felt like he could not leave.

Lee gives Eun-seo tapes of the protest, and she watches them in her office. And there he is, six years younger, the Park Jun whom she remembers. Passionate, angry, full of vigor and righteousness, yelling in the face of over a hundred riot police on behalf of hundreds of oppressed workers. Then the police rush past him to beat the workers mercilessly and arrest them. And then the camera finds Park Jun…alone…utterly deflated.

Lee finds Jun passed out in the office and wakes him up. He had just talked with the realtors and…realtors? The ones for the sale. Oops. Jun didn’t mean any of that. Cancel the deal. Lee shows him the note about counsel for the crossbow case. Jun says that employees should not bully their bosses the way that Lee has. Lee snaps and screams at Jun and hands in his resignation. Fine. Fine. Jun will take the crossbow case.

Jun meets with Kyung-ho again, saying that he has changed his mind. He asks why Kyung-ho took that crossbow in the first place. Kyung-ho says that he needed stress relief from the trial, and used it at a shooting field. He took it to Park Bong-joo’s place to scare him into confessing his false judgement. Well, that settles it for Park Jun. Now they can get to work.

After several hours, they are pretty much done for the day. Kyung-ho gives Jun a written statement of grounds for appeal. When Jun says that he will type it up and polish it, Kyung-ho tells him to submit it as is. Then…what is it that Kyung-ho wants Jun to actually do as his lawyer? Kyung-ho just wants Jun to support him, which means doing what Kyung-ho says. And to stop drinking so much. Jun tells him that he will remain sober until the end of the trial. And he leaves.

 

 

 

 

This movie was inspired by the true story of Kim Myung-ho, a former mathematics professor who was jailed for supposedly shooting Judge Park Hong-woo with a crossbow. Though he maintained his innocence, he was branded a terrorist. It caused enough of a stir for Chung Ji-young to take up the mantle of director after fifteen years of barely doing anything. How accurate is this movie to real events? I have no idea. I could find little information in English regarding the case and what little I did find was rather vague.

The movie itself had its share of controversy, with those worried that it would stir up the pot and spark hatred against South Korea’s judiciary. That said, one could argue that it tapped into the existing distrust of the judiciary among the South Korean people. That is how this movie, made relatively cheaply and released to pathetic opening numbers, managed to become a huge hit simply by word of mouth.

And this movie is fun. First off, the whole crossbow thing is ludicrous enough. Surely a knife would have worked as well, but a crossbow is a statement. However, while one may come for the crossbow, one stays for Kim Kyung-ho and Park Jun. Because they are characters. Whether apart or together, they cause a scene.

I guess that we can start with Kyung-ho, since he is the story’s central figure. From what little I could get about the real story, he seems to be similar enough to Myung-ho; a real stickler for the law. As Kyung-ho says himself, he believes that the law is perfect and that society would be perfect if people adhered to it. Of course, since not everyone will adhere to the law, then it is up to the systems that maintain society to enforce the law. That mindset must have worked fine for him the majority of his life. And then, in 1995, it did not. And it did not again. And then he moved to America, where…maybe the mindset worked for him for ten years. And then he moved back to South Korea, where it did not work again…and again. Did he change his mindset? Did he start thinking that the system itself was open to abuses and had to be changed? Not really? Or, if he did, he did not acknowledge it. However, he did see that there were corrupt individuals who had managed to entrench themselves within the system and were able to abuse their authority, perverting the perfect law. Thus, these people were deemed fair game; particularly the last judge, Park Bong-joo.

Now, sure, threatening a man with a crossbow is a legally dubious act at best. Even Kim Kyung-ho may admit as much. Even if he did get Bong-joo to admit that he had made the wrong judgement, that would probably not be legally binding. But Kyung-ho was backed into a corner, so to speak. Perhaps he subconsciously knew that Bong-joo would admit to nothing, and that this would receive national attention. Who knows? In any case, this moment of psychological weakness turns him into the criminal. Yet, this criminal knows the law, and whatever he does not know, he learns. He will use the principled stubbornness that he used towards I guess everything else in his life and apply it to his legal defense. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to call it a legal counter-attack. Get it? The title refers both to his insistence that he did not loose the bow on Bong-joo AND that he will not bow to the authorities.

The Korean title translates as Broken Arrow, by the way.

Kim Kyung-ho’s belief in the law is absolute. And in its rightness comes a sense that he himself is right. That can be helpful when the world is against him, but it also means that he can be stubborn about the smaller things. The reluctance of his first lawyer to fulfill his every demand got him fired. And he is constantly butting heads with Park Jun regarding how they will proceed, to the point where one may ask whether it was possible for him to simply represent himself. So, while it is easy to sympathize with his predicament and struggles, it is not so easy to sympathize with him as a person. I am pretty sure that the film’s director has contempt for the political conservatism that his Kim Kyung-ho clings to so hard, particularly since his next film, about police torture of democracy activists under military dictatorship, would be titled National Security, in reference to the National Security Law that Park Jun brings up as a challenge to Kyung-ho and which Kyung-ho dodges. Still, there is a bit of glee that movie takes in seeing him use the weapons of his enemies against them, be it the judges, the prosecutors, or everyone in prison. That Park Jun is occasionally collateral damage is acceptable, particularly when it is funny. He rarely gets loud, even when angry. He is just extremely blunt with his sharpness…or sharp with his bluntness. There is only one part of the film where he is rendered unable to go on the offensive and…while I would not wish that on anyone, I would rather it be based on fact than made up for the film; otherwise, it would be in pretty poor taste.

I cannot say anything about Kim Myung-ho’s lawyer or lawyers, so it is possible that Park Jun was completely made up so that the director could shoehorn references to labor strikes. But that is fine. I guess that Jun is portrayed as a bit of a fallen hero. We get a glimpse of him in his glory days, when he used his position as a lawyer to stand up for the workers against callous business class and the abusive powers that be. But our glimpse was of just before his own actions end up hurting those whom he had sworn to protect. Now we are at least five years separated from that, and he is separated from the knight in shining armor whom he once was. We do not really see how he represents his clients prior to Kim Kyung-ho, but it is implied that they seek him out due to his reputation from 2001 and are often disappointed by what they find. He still hates the system, but his righteous rage has curdled into cynicism. He is not quite a broken man so much as we see a man teetering on the edge of cracking. He is a hopeless alcoholic, somewhat absent-minded, always focused on money.

And then there is his wandering eye. His wife seems to know about it, or at least suspect it. And Jang Eun-seo seems to get the worst of it. Eun-seo does call him out on it at least once, outright saying that it is sexual harassment, but Jun does not seem to take her complaint seriously. I am not sure what the director or the movie is trying to say here, but this is relatively early in the film, so it could be another way of showing how far gone he is into scumbaggery. It did come off as unnecessary and awkward, though, so I do understand if people find it off-putting. Was the real lawyer like this?

It is obvious that Kyung-ho and Jun would clash off the bat. Kyung-ho is singular in his focus while Jun is one fumble away from chaos. Kyung-ho is a right-wing idealist while Jun’s leftist beliefs have turned bitter. Kyung-ho wants to perfect the system that he perceives to be perfect regardless of who it may have hurt while Jun would tear it all down if he was not petrified of getting people hurt. In this case, however, they have found common enemies. Kyung-ho sees the prosecutors who lied about him and the judges who accepted their lies as bad apples that could spoil the bunch. Meanwhile, Jun sees them as endemic of a corrupt system, and this is a case of those upholding the system eating one of their own for daring to go public with how it maintains itself. Regardless of which of them is more correct, they have to beat these people at their own game, using the law as sword and shield. Of course, it would help if they were at least close to being on the same page, which is less often than either would like.

One thing that would seems to be in their favor is just how flimsy the prosecution’s case is regarding the alleged attack. I am not sure how true life this aspect of the story was, but the movie portrays the prosecution’s case as being practically nonexistent; there is even one point where the prosecutor outright admits in court that he does not know the answers to some of the questions that the defense has asked. It seems like the main argument is that Kyung-ho was there with a crossbow, Park-joo was injured, and he claimed that that was from Kyung-ho’s crossbow. Sure, a cursory glance would make it easy to get from A to C through B. It seems that everyone who did not look at the evidence has concluded that he obviously did it, including fellow inmates and Park Jun himself at first. The movie argues that that is not the case. The evidence is not particularly convincing and may have even been tampered with. It is not simply that there are other possible explanations for how things went, but that it is highly unlikely that things went the way that Park-joo and the prosecution claimed. Certainly, that should be enough to have the judge dismiss the case.

Not so fast. This movie shows the judiciary to be fully in the pocket of the powers that be. And with Kyung-ho placing conservative principles above the conservative power structure, he is on the outs with the powers that be. And, thus, as much as the law may be on his side, the law enforcers are not. There is almost a running gag of Kyung-ho going over the head of Park Jun to interrupt either the judge or prosecutor (or Jun himself) to accuse someone of lying. Since, I guess the lack of contempt powers prevent the judge from simply making Kyung-ho shut up, the judge either lets him continue his rants or argues with him directly. But Kyung-ho can make all of the assertions that he wants; it will not sway the judge. Almost every time, the judge ultimately goes with the statements that the prosecutor and Park Bong-joo gave, and dismissing any call to re-examine the evidence as unnecessary. Of course he would. After all, Park Bong-joo is a colleague, just like the first judge who rejected Kim Kyung-ho was a colleague. He would not betray a colleague for something as intangible as principle the way that Kyung-ho did as a professor. Furthermore, this is case is more than just about a physical attack on a fellow judge, but an existential attack on the judiciary as a whole. And, just in case the parallels were not obvious enough, one of the protagonists compares this trial to the Dreyfus Affair.

Jun and Kyung-ho squabbling with each other while trying to take on the system is most of the movie’s focus. As such, other characters kind of get the short shrift. Pretty much everyone in the court seem to be punch-clocky, villainous or otherwise. The same goes for the prison guards and even the prisoners to an extent. They had a job to do and they do it, whether they do it well or not. Jun’s wife is mostly there to scowl at him, and his kids are practically nonexistent. I never got a full bead on what Lee’s actual position was Jun’s office (let alone Mrs. Lee, whom I did not even mention until right now), but it seems like both he and Eun-seo are there to steer the flailing Jun in the right direction. Mrs. Kim is mostly there to look nervous. We do not really know what is the deal with the supporters of Kyungo-ho, what grievances they have against the judiciary. There is one scene where Kyung-ho talks with a really tall guy and it took me a few seconds to realize that that was his son. Oh well. It does not really matter, though. This movie is about Jun and Kyung-ho. These people serve to fill out the world for Kyung-ho and Jun to inhabit and give context to what they are doing.

I don’t know how much insight I gained into the South Korean justice system, but this movie is heaps entertaining and, aside from a few questionable choices, I really enjoy it.

 

 

 

WTF 158: Amal (uh…India: 2007, approx. 103-4 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in AustraliaCanadaFrancethe Netherlandsthe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.  Also on Einthusan.

 

WTF 159: Fires on the Plain (Japan: 1959, approx. 104-5 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in CanadaFrance, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries.