Two friends find the bond forged during military service doesn't mean much in civilian life in "The Unforgiven," a fresh, if overlong, indie debut by writer-director Yoon Jong-bin. No-frills effort, cutting back and forth between barracks life and an uneasy meeting some time later in a civvy street, has a slow-burning atmosphere that, with a grungier look compared with most South Korean cinema, should prove attractive to Western fests. Pic scooped several crix' awards at the Pusan festival, plus the audience prize and a special mention from the main jury. Local release is set for November.
Lee Seung-yeong (Seo Jang-weon) is a fresh-faced but quietly rebellious newbie at a military camp where he's starting his 26 months of mandatory service. A superior, Yu Tae-jeong (Ha Jeong-woo), recognizes him from high school and gives him some tips on survival, later promising to take him under his wing if their former friendship remains a secret.
Yu basically tells Lee to keep his lip buttoned and play the game. However, Lee finds this increasingly difficult, especially in the face of outright bullying by Sgt. Ma, who enjoys provoking new recruits.
In a device that's initially confusing but later becomes clear, the film cuts, with no warning, to a year or so later, when Lee, on leave in Seoul, rings Yu and suggests they get together. Yu, almost unrecognizable with a beard, is now a bum, living with his g.f., Ji-hae; he's loath to meet Lee, but eventually agrees, in company with the obviously bored Ji-hae. But when Ji-hae insists on going home, Yu goes with her.
Pic crosscuts between the two time lines, as Lee tests Yu's friendship by refusing to bend to institutionalized bullying and, in the present time, tries to arrange another meeting with his friend to impart something serious that is on his mind. The revelation of what that is becomes the main motor to the movie.
Military scenes are almost entirely set in the soldiers' cramped, communal quarters (no training, or any superiors, are ever shown), with a nice sense of growing ensemble in the performances. Though on paper the film sounds bleak, in practice it's anything but: The copious, expletive-strewn dialogue has considerable straight-faced humor that may not be immediately apparent to non-Korean auds, and the psychological violence is mild compared with, say, U.S. boot-camp dramas.
Though the film can be read as a condemnation of a system that puts young men through such a process (hardly unique to South Korea), it's more about the shifting nature of friendship and how specific circumstances shape it. For Yu, friendship is a utilitarian thing; for the more principled Lee, it's a commitment. From being a by-the-rules officer, and a soulmate to a younger recruit, Yu becomes a slovenly layabout with whom Lee (still in uniform) finds he can hardly communicate. So much for military service, pic seems to say; but also, so much for friendship.
Pic could profitably be trimmed by at least 15 minutes, as the shuttlecocking structure becomes repetitive and little is added by ongoing scenes of barracks bullying. Performances, however, are consistently good -- and believable. Tech package in the blowup from 16mm is modest but pro, with weak, wintry colors that fit the mood.
Camera (color), Kim Byeong-cheol; editor, Kim Woo-il; art directors, Yoon, Son Sang-beom; sound (Dolby Digital), Seong Ji-yeong; assistant director, Son. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents, competing), Oct. 9, 2005. Running time: 122 MIN.