Dir/scr: Yoon Jong-bin. S Kor. 2005. 126mins.
The traumas of masculinity and themilitary life are sensitively and obliquely probed in The Unforgiven, the debut feature fromKorean writer-director Yoon Jong-bin. Despitecurrents of menace and brutality, it lies at the more contemplative end ofSouth Korea's cinema spectrum, its elliptical, two-strand structure making itakin to the teasing narratives of Hong Sang-soo (The Day A Pig Fell Into A Well, Woman Is The Future Of Man).
The winner of several awardsat Pusan late last year, The Unforgiven merits wider festivalexposure - it plays in Un Certain Regard at Cannes next month - where its intelligent, quietly emotive approach should attract buyerslooking for subtler, non-genre Korean fare.
The narrative, weavingtogether two time frames, focuses on Lee Seung-young(Suh Jang-won), an army recruit in his late 20s, whoreports for duty at a camp, where his seeming naivety and gentleness attractthe attention of higher-ranking bullies.
The supposedly mercilesssergeant commanding Seung-young's platoon turns outto be Yoo Tae-jung (HaJung-woo), an old high school friend of his. Although the rigidly hierarchicalarmy structure forbids the two men from fraternising, Tae-jungshows his friend the ropes - at least until his gentle treatment of Seung-young starts to compromise.
Seung-young himself disapproves of the routine bullying ofrecruits, but once he rises in the ranks, his own forbearance is tested by Huh Ji-hoon (played by director Yoon), a slow-witted privatefrom Pusan.
Some time later, Seung-young visits the now discharged Tae-jung in Seoul, and finds his old friend apparently on theskids. Awkwardly driving a wedge between Tae-jung andhis girlfriend Ji-hye (Kim Sung-mi), Seung-young is insistent and needy and - as becomesincreasingly obvious - has something on his mind that he can't quite get roundto saying.
Tantalisingly threading itstwo time frames, the drama expertly leads us to twin tragedies, both evoked withimpressive understatement.
Specificallyrooted in South Korean society, Yoon's story comments on that nation'smandatory period of military service for young men. The film's thesis is that the army'sinstitutionalised system of bullying and servility inescapably causes emotionalscars, both to abused subordinates and to the higher ranks who are routinelyexpected to be oppressors.
The images of roughhousearmy life may seem muted, even tame, to audiences used to the rigors of Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead, bullying here involves juniorsoldiers acting as deferential servants, evoking something more akin to thefagging system of British public schools.
No doubt financialconstraints are partly responsible for Joon'schamber-drama depiction of the camp, which suggests a rather aimless andleisurely existence rather than the full-on manoeuvres and drills expected fromarmy drama. But all this, however, only makes the The Unforgiven more effective as apsychological piece.
In the Seoul sequences, setduring a single night, Joon keeps the audienceguessing about how his two lead characters have changed since they servedtogether. Always hanging over the drama is the suggestion that Seung-young is gay and in lovewith his former sergeant; homoerotic currents are implicit rather than obvious,shower scene notwithstanding.
Relaxed performances allround, together with Yoon's penchant for long takes and a detached camera stylemake this a poignant, quietly impressive debut. Director Yoon also gives apoignant, notably vanity-free performance as the gauche Ji-hoon,the drama's catalyst.
Yoon Jong-bin Film