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The Unforgiven is quite impressive for a film school graduate thesis. It seems to be a rather rare subject matter as far as Korean film is concerned as it's a drama focused on men who are serving their compulsory military service. Not men who are out fighting battles or men who are stationed somewhere, but these are young Korean men who are stationed in Korea, serving their service in the barracks and the picture is ultimately, neither flattering nor wholly critical either. But it is a rare glimpse into a previously cinematically unexplored aspect of military life for civilians.
The film is shown mostly in flashback and follows Lee Seungyoung (Seo Jangwon), during his first year of mandatory military service. It's clear from the start that Lee and his independent-thinking streak does not mesh will with the "your superior is always right, even if they are wrong" power structure and things look grim until he discovers that his sergeant, Yoo Taejung (Ha Jungwoo) also happens to be a childhood buddy of his and tries to make things easier for him at least some of the time. Lee eventually finds himself charged with a new soldier, Hur Jihoon (the director, Yoon Jongbin), whose lack of focus and competence threatens even Lee's own tenuous standing with his squad. Meanwhile, in the present, Lee seeks out the since discharged Yoo for some drinks, as Yoo is trying to spend some time with his girlfriend. Lee seems to have something on his mind that he wants to speak to Yoo about, but is having difficulties spitting it out.
While the story is kind of predictable (including where the two parallel timelines are going to collide), I think its strength is in its characterizations and the tension in the military that obviously impacts the different characters in different ways. We know that the military life has broken down Yoo's ideals and he half shields Lee from the worst of it, but realizes he has to expose Lee to some of it in order for Lee to be able to survive after he gets discharged. Likewise, we watch as the independent and almost rebellious Lee eventually learns to adapt to kowtowing to the higher ranked soldiers (in his own way) in order to make things easier and then start repeat the cycle of abuse on his junior. We also get to see the impact of Korean masculinity combined with military experience has on Yoo as his behavior towards his girlfriend often seems more C/O than boyfriend and she clearly doesn't always understand this (not saying that she should though). And it's that exploration of how both masculinity and hierarchal thinking transmits itself which is fascinating to watch. Still, at the end, the film gets a little too melodramatic and undoes some of the potency it gained from the scenes before. I also feel the film runs a little slow at times and unnecessarily repeats themes and motifs which are well ingrained into the story.
The film is obviously shot on a shoe-string budget, with (comparatively) shoddy equipment and what looks like limited amounts of shooting. However, the acting is really strong and helps carry the film even through its low value look. The director actually managed to gain permission to shoot inside a real barrack, so that was some great detail there, even though I doubt that the Korean military would see this film and approve of what it saw as it's certainly less than complimentary. Finally, the film is very sparse on music, except at the beginning, the end, and the music that Lee listens to in the few moments where he can. The score choices at the title and end credits are easily recognizable classical pieces and feel overused, so I feel like they detract from the film. Personally, I would've preferred some careful foley or sound design to fill in the credits.
Overall, I think that The Unforgiven is a strong film, even with is low production values and sometimes overlong story, if just for its willingness to directly confront masculinity and enforced social hierarchy as well as expose some of what happens in the military and its effect on the soldiers. However, I also recognize that not everyone who's watching it might get as much out of it, although, since as a civilian, I still understood most of it, I won't say it's not possible, but I imagine those that don't have a understanding of masculine silence would be very frustrated by the storyline set in the present. Heck, even understanding it, I found it frustrating. Still, an interesting and ultimately worthwhile and different look into life as a military man. 7/10.