“A Violent Prosecutor” – 2016 New York Asian Film Festival Review

The title of Lee Il-hyeong’s directorial debut refers to the character of Byun Jae-wook (played by veteran Hwang Jung-min), but in reality, the most successful South Korean film in 2016 – so far – draws from the same formula as last year’s hit, “Inside Men.”  Both films feature an unlikely pair brazenly taking on a number of male-dominated institutions, seemingly against the odds in their respective quests for justice.  Where “A Violent Prosecutor” (검사외전) differs is in two areas: a strategically-timed sense of humor that manages to complement the story and the scene-stealing performance of one actor in particular.  (Hint: He’s not the prosecutor.)

A swift montage introduces the main players, but if this is missed, it’s pretty simple to figure out who is who.  Jae-wook is a lawyer whose temper interferes with his intelligence, leading to fisticuffs with suspects during interrogations instead of actual questions.  One of these occurs after the scene of an environmental protest, where a group of gangsters (including Chi-won, played by Kang Dong-won) is hired to pose as employees of an NGO contesting the closure of a bird sanctuary in favor of a resort.  The gangsters are instructed to incite violence, but curiously Chi-won flees the scene without swinging an iron pipe even once.

Jae-wook’s signature coercion unfortunately contributes to his downfall after a suspect from the protest – who had knocked a police officer unconscious – is found dead in the interrogation room the next morning.  Long questioned by his superiors and colleagues about his tactics, Jae-wook is immediately arrested for murder and jailed for 15 years.  Meanwhile, those same co-workers happen to be plotting some maneuvers to further their own careers, making Jae-wook wonder if he was a convenient scapegoat.  Outside the walls of Jae-wook’s jail cell, his supervisor Jong-gil (Lee Sung-min) – who had decided to internally handle Jae-wook’s case – has quickly become a congressman, whereas fellow lawyer and Jong-gil confidant Min-woo (Park Sung-woong) views the ascent of his career as a means to becoming famous.

Jae-wook’s new environment doesn’t allow much space for comfortable self-analysis, as he also must contend with the very prisoners he prosecuted over his career.  His attempts to appeal fall flat and five fictional years pass.  That is when the fun really begins, about one-quarter into the film, after Chi-won happens to end up at the same prison as Jae-wook.  Unlike the chilly reception the prosecutor received, Chi-won is an old hand at this routine, greeting his fellow prisoners as old friends.  Kang plays up the role of a doe-eyed idiot savant who claims he’s actually from Pennsylvania and not Korea, a striking contrast to the humorless Jae-wook who has now become the go-to legal adviser for his fellow inmates and prison staff.  When Jae-wook overhears a conversation that links Chi-won to his own case, he seizes the opportunity to help himself by training the whippersnapper in a jailhouse two-man version of “Ocean’s Eleven” with the intention of getting him out of prison to do the heavy lifting on his behalf.

Of course, this scheme does not have the slick polish of a George Clooney/Brad Pitt-led operation.  This instead simply serves a golden opportunity for Kang to ham it up between scamming naïve girlfriends and sprinkling English phrases like, “Wassup, bro?” into his speech.  Kang squints, scrunches his face, sheds the occasional tear and dances his way through this role, careening through a growing pile of distractions as Jae-wook is forced to sit and hope for the best from afar.  “A Violent Prosecutor” is by no means a one-man show, even if at times it feels that way once Kang lets loose.  When he’s not on camera, the film strikes a balance between the humor and the task at hand – constantly reminding us that a once violent, now humbled prosecutor is in the trenches of his toughest case yet.

“A Violent Prosecutor” screens at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival on Fri., July 8, at 6:15 p.m. at the SVA Theatre.