A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)

Korea (2016) Dir. Lee Il-Hyeong

You have to feel for Lee Il-Hyeong. His directorial debut with an A-list cast was on course to being the highest grossing film of 2016 in his native Korea, until the lauded zombie flick Train To Busan (due in the UK very soon) appeared and usurped its box office leadership on a spectacular scale.

A peaceful protest against a bird sanctuary being torn down is disrupted by a gang hired to pose as protestors then attack the police, during which an officer is severely injured after being struck in the head. The perpetrator, Lee Jin-Suk (Park Jong-Hwan), is questioned by Byun Jae-Wook (Hwang Jung-Min), a prosecutor known for his violent behaviour. When Jin-Suk dies in custody Jae-Wook is charged with murder.

Realising he was framed Jae-Wook tries to clear his name from inside prison but his request for a retrial is denied. Five years later, pretty boy conman Han Chi-Won (Kang Dong-won) arrives in prison and Jae-Wook learns that he was one of the thugs at the protest. Forming an alliance, Jae-Wook helps Chi Won win his appeal and release from prison, then sets him the task of bringing down the people who framed him.

There is a slight trace of The Shawshank Redemption in how Jae-Wook manages to ingratiate himself with the prison governor (Kim Hong-Fa) through his professional knowhow but that really is as far as it goes. The second half of the film takes on an air of a heist caper with Chi-Won adopting different disguises and personae to infiltrate the epicentre of the corruption, closing with a swift but taut courtroom drama.

In essence a lot of ground is covered in this 126 film which is billed as a comedy drama but the former is at a premium, limited mostly to Chi-Won’s smarmy post-prison antics in wooing the ladies to achieve his goals. This may disappoint some but looking at the picture as a whole, this is for the best since a tonal conflict is avoided and the humour doesn’t undermine the drama.

For a first timer Lee Il-Hyeong has opened an impressive account for himself, having clearly learned on the job as assistant director on films such as Kundo: Age of the Rampant. Presentation and content wise Lee has kept his ambitions modest, aiming squarely at the multiplex audience, which may be playing it safe but shows he is not getting too ahead of himself at this early stage.

The script is well crafted and keeps things moving along, covering all the salient points of the plot without overcrowding it with unnecessary longueurs. Considering the depth of this sinuous tale, it would probably take over three hours to fully explore all of the finer details, so we are asked to show some leniency towards the expedience of the final act for all of the parts to start to come together.

So, why was Jae-Wook framed in the first place? His reputation for getting results via his fists was legendary among his peers but was not appreciated by his superior, Assistant prosecutor general Yoo Jong-gil (Lee Sung-min), who coincidently is running for office. When Jin-Suk is brought in, Yoo insist that his colleague Yang Min-Woo (Park Sung-Woong) take the case, but a defiant Jae-Wook gets there first.

Jin-Suk, an asthmatic, died over night and since Jae-Wook was the last to see him alive, and has a reputation, is charged with his death. Before the hearing, Yoo says he can get the charge quashed if Jae-Wook pleads guilty to manslaughter but this was a ruse and instead he is sent down for 15 years for murder.

Upon arriving in prison, Jae-Wook is greeted by some familiar faces, criminals he had sent down in his career. Unfortunately for Jae-Wook, prison reform has eluded them as they recall his brutish ways, paying him back in kind. It isn’t until Jae-Wook is able to help a warden with a legal matter that Jae-Wook is able to negotiate some perks in return and five years later is the top dog of the prison.

Chi-Won on the other hand is a slick confidence trickster out for number one, with nine previous convictions of identity theft and scamming young women out of the money. Jae-Wook can see through the façade but it isn’t until he learns that Chi-Won was part of the gang at the protest and knew all about Jin-Suk and the dodgy deals of his boss, one Yoo Jong-gil, who was being funded via a slush fund of another corrupt official, Subsection Chief Park (Lee Seung-Hoon).

With so many people under Jong-gil’s thumb, Jae-Wook has his work cut out for him in trying to get his retrial authorised which is where Chi-Won comes into the picture. This turns into a one-man show as Chi-won gets to work, changing his appearance, identity and character in order to gate crash parties, public events and gain access to the prosecutor’s office.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires but we find ourselves in that unenviable position of rooting for a convicted fraudster and a bullying public official. In the case of Jae-Wook, he was always concerned with the truth but his aggressive methods obfuscated this noble intention. Chi-Won is a cheeky little git but his gall and swagger is quite infectious and entertaining.

To bring these two characters to life, it was smart casting to have Hwang Jung-Min as Jae-Wook, an actor whose stock has grown over the past few years. Hwang is able to play the heavy and the sympathetic character, handy as Jae-Wook ends up as both.  Kang Dong-won plays Chi-Won a little too much for laughs but since he is someone who rarely takes things seriously, this will help endear the character to the audience.

A Violent Prosecutor may not have the gravitas or emotional depth of a prestige film but is an enjoyable and well-written crime caper romp. It doesn’t break any new ground yet leaves a satisfying impression. A confident debut effort.