South Korean movie “The Attorney” has its heart at the right place inside its generic mix of gentle comedy and angry courtroom drama, and its big heart sometimes beats powerfully to resonate with my own heart. The story is riddled with several weak points, and I think the movie could have been better, but it shouts its urgent message loud and clear to us through a typical but moving tale of a man who opens his eyes to the social injustice surrounding him. Once his eyes are opened, he just can’t stop, and he is determined to fight against that injustice with all the strength he has.
At first, Woo-seok(Song Kang-ho) was merely a successful lawyer who climbed up the ladder of success through his luck and efforts. As reflected by the lines uttered by him and others, he never went to college, and he almost gave up his law study at one point, but he kept trying and now he becomes a lawyer with solid background and experience. After working as a judge in Daejeon for a while, he decides to move to Pusan for entering the private practice, and he is fortunate enough to find lucrative fields ready for him; he starts with handling real estate matters, and then he moves on to tax law, and, thanks to his growing reputation, he later receives a recruitment offer from one of the leading corporations in South Korea.
Everything looks good for him and his employees and his family, but he gradually faces the volatile reality of South Korean society during the 1970-80s, the dark era when lots of people were brutalized in the name of national security by the consecutive dictatorship regimes. When the dictatorship of Park Jung-hee, who was the father of the current South Korean president, was over in 1979, another dictatorship quickly followed, and nothing was changed; the government trampled on any protest or demonstration as usual, and they also arrested innocent people and then labelled them as North Korean spies/sympathizers after beating and torturing them for extracting false confessions out of them.
While showing South Korean legal authorities preparing their latest brutal political circus to jolt South Korean people again on the other side, the movie focuses on how the life could be easy and comfortable during that terrible time through Woo-seok’s daily work and life. Money keeps coming into his office, and he and his family move to a better home he has always wished for, and he also buys a yacht for his hobby. While the nation is shaken by the news on the students’ demonstrations, he does not care much about that because, as a jaded guy who knows two or three things about South Korean society, he cynically thinks a few protests cannot change the society overnight.
However, when he sees the injustice inflicted on one of the people close to him, he comes to see how wrong his society has been far more clearly than before. Jin-woo(Lim Si-wan), the son of Woo-seok’s favorite restaurant owner Soon-ae(Kim Yeong-ae), is suddenly arrested along with his friends by the cops lead by Inspector Cha(Kwak Do-won), and, after two months of imprisonment and torture, Jin-woo and his friends are now about to be put on the trial. Everything is already set from the very beginning; the judge, the prosecutor, and even the defense lawyers representing the accused have all been set to give sentences even before the trial begins, and their major concern is how they can make this process done swiftly and smoothly.
This outrageous and infuriating incident depicted in the movie really happened in Pusan in 1981, and I heard many details in the movie are very close to the real-life incident. The prosecutor labels the accused as subversive communists just because these young men shared ‘subversive’ books including “What is History?” by E.H. Carr between them and others, and only direct evidence he has is the ‘confessions’ obtained during the police interrogations. Most of the defense lawyers do not try much because they know they are on the losing side; in their opinion, the best thing they can do as these unfortunate young men’s lawyers is lessening the sentences to be given as much as possible.
But, unlike them, Woo-seok has a different thought. He was reluctant to be Jin-woo’s defense lawyer when he accepted Soon-ae’s tearful plea, but then something gets ignited inside his jaded heart after he happens to witness what the police have done to Jin-woo. He is well aware of that he has almost no chance of winning, but he does not pass any single chance to fight and protest against the oppressing system at the courtroom, and he eventually goes further to the point he has never imagined before in his life.
There are lots of dramatic scenes during the second half of the movie, Song Kang-ho, who is having a fantastic year with this film and “The Face Reader”(2013) and “Snowpiercer”(2013), is simply magnificent during these scenes as the everyman hero of the story. As one of few South Korean actors who can be both casual and commanding at the same time, Song fluidly carries the movie from comedy to drama, and his comic scenes are brimming with warm humanity while his dramatic lines palpate with the righteous passion and anger erupting from the inside of the character.
The other supporting actors surrounding Song are less impressive in comparison, but they function well as the parts of the story. Oh Dal-soo, who plays Woo-seok’s assistant, is a good comic foil during the first half of the story, and Kwak Do-won is menacing and despicable as a bullying police officer who absolutely believes in what he is ordered to do; it is rather chilling to think that the people like him are still walking freely with no particular remorse even after the eventual democratization of South Korea in 1987.
Although the movie emphasizes at the beginning that its story is a fiction, I and other South Korean audiences all knew too well that Woo-seok is a fictional version of late Roh Moo-hyun, the former South Korean president who did passionately defend the accused in 1981 and then became a notable leading figure of democratization movement since that trial. After his presidency and following tragic suicide in 2009, his name and legacy have been virtually tarnished and butchered by the local right-wing politicians including the current South Korean president, and I even heard that no reporter dared to mention his name at first during the press screening of this movie, as if he had been something equivalent to Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter films.
While the director/co-writer Yang Woo-seok intended to give us a fictional story, “The Attorney” is still closely tied to the life story of Rho Moo-hyun, and there is a certain degree of awkwardness in the movie as it strains to balance itself between fiction and reality. The story itself feels clumsy and heavy-handed at times, and its several characters are underdeveloped including Woo-seok’s wife(Lee Hang-na), who naturally shows concerns about her husband and family during the obligatory scene of a worrying wife.
Nevertheless, its power and appeal are strong enough for compensating for its flaws, and, maybe because of the democracy being strangled to death by the current South Korean administration who keeps surprising its citizens with its bold, brash, and arrogant attitude, the urgent message inside “The Attorney” came quite close to me and other audiences during the screening at last night, and I could see some of them were moved to tears during its several highpoints.
I must confess that I have my own jaded cynicism as a guy over 30 and I criticized President Roh several times during my youthful years(I once called him a ‘buffoon’ in front of others and I still regret my thoughtless words on him), but the movie reminds me again that I and others should not ignore what is happening in South Korean society right now. It seems the movie is destined to be another box office success at South Korean theaters thanks to its big publicity surrounding its inspiration, but, seriously, what will I and other South Korean audiences think of it after 5 years?