The Korean smash hit “The Attorney” opens in U.S. theaters February 7, 2014 courtesy of Well Go USA. This human rights courtroom drama has South Korean audiences cheering and sobbing in the aisles but will probably fare less well with stateside audiences unfamiliar with Korean history and politics. Nevertheless the 127 minute film is well-paced and absorbing, has an outstanding cast, solid production values and a universal message that should strike a chord with all viewers.
2013’s biggest actor Song Kang-ho plays Song Woo-seuk, a pragmatic, materialistic Busan attorney who agrees to defend a friend’s imprisoned teenage son (Lim Siwan). As the facts of the boy’s horrific plight unfold, Song’s involvement grows from small personal favor to sweeping indictment of government corruption.
Debut writer-director Yang Woo-seuk carefully crafts this dramatization of an incident in the early career of President Roh Moo-hyun during the oppressive martial rule of Chun Doo-hwan. Based on Roh’s Burim Case, in which teachers and students were falsely accused of communist sympathy, the screenplay moves effortlessly from light-hearted comedy to sentimental inspiration to frightening intensity. Yang has a strong talent for naturalistic expository dialogue, which is enhanced by an excellent cast. Song Kang Ho is right at home in his role of good-natured working class lawyer, and lovely supporting actress Kim Young-ae shines as the mother of the young victim. The relaxed, natural presence of actors Oh Dal-su as Song’s assistant and Kwak Do-won as Inspector Cha adds a smooth realism to the story.
Background knowledge may help some viewers better connect with “The Attorney”. The famous people, oppressive atmosphere, and the case itself are presented in a straightforward manner, without overwrought melodrama. The characters are not complex. Song’s naive, honest and benevolent personality is, naturally, somewhat eulogized. Police detective Cha Dong-young is evil, the women are good, the children innocent. This lack of personal drama allows for more focus on an important human rights story, yet the absence of intimacy may make it harder for foreign viewers to immerse themselves in a Korean event told by a Korean film maker to a Korean audience. This is of course fully appropriate, given the meaningful and highly emotional history behind “The Attorney”.
Director Yang’s themes of perseverance, truth and bravery are powerful and life-affirming. And the incredible success of “The Attorney” – so far the 9th most popular Korean film of all time – is a testament to the importance of the story for Koreans. But Yang’s universal themes can, and should, touch us all. Yang had made an incredibly strong first feature film. We can only wait in wonder and anticipation for the second.