Legal Man: The Attorney movie review
Opening this weekend in San Francisco and other select U.S. cities, The Attorney is the latest South Korean hit film to reach U.S. cinemas. Unlike some of the beloved ultraviolent S. Korean movies to reach our shores, The Attorney is a character-based drama that requires a bit of knowledge of the intricacies of recent S. Korean political history. Its appeal lies in its intimate look at S. Korean social strata, its commentary on political and governmental corruption, and yet another charismatic lead performance by the people’s actor, Song Kang-Ho.
Set mostly in 1981, The Attorney follows mild-mannered autodidact tax attorney Song Woo-Seok (Song Kang-Ho), who is moderately reviled among the snooty, better educated Busan lawyer crowd for his lack of a college diploma until he takes on the South Korean government in a case of “national security.” A group of teenage boys are framed for sedition and accused of being communists, their confessions taken under torture. Song is outraged and defends one of the boys, who also happens to be the son of the lady who runs the pork stew shop that Song frequents. Despite government corruption and obfuscation Song persists in the case and wins the respect of the law community.
The film takes a while to pick up steam, focusing at first on Song’s character and career. But once the main body of the narrative kicks in the story becomes an engaging courtroom drama, leavened with some unpleasant torture sequences that affirm S. Korean cinema’s leading role in oppressively violent imagery. No one films a beating quite like the South Koreans and, though mild by the standards of, say, A Bittersweet Life or The Yellow Sea, the scenes of a helpless, near-naked teenager lying brutalized on a concrete floor or choking underwater effectively make their point.
Dressed in a suit and with his often-wild and frizzy hair combed flat, Song Kang-Ho as Song Woo-Seuk is as straight as his hair, unlike the wacky characters he’s played in the past, including the “weird” in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the conflicted vampire priest in Thirst, and the slacker dad in The Host. Song is on a roll this year, with three blockbuster hits in S. Korea including Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the period drama The Face Reader, and The Attorney, which was the top-grossing film in S. Korea in the past month. In The Attorney he’s very effective as the modest tax attorney turned crusader, using his mobile and expressive face and body language to good effect. He’s always been good at playing the schlumpy everyman and here he exploits that persona, transforming from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks lawyer to a civil rights hero.
Although I was caught up in the story, I thought the film’s ending was somewhat treacly and let the government off the hook a bit. Even if Song is validated, does that mean he’s affected real social change, or is the movie all about him feeling good about himself? Sure, one person is redeemed, but was the oppressive social system dismantled? Or is that too much to expect from a commercial movie product? The anti-fascist commentator in me was a bit disappointed by the conclusion until I found out more about the film’s backstory.
The finer points of the film’s social commentary may be elusive to non-Korean viewers without some knowledge of late 20th century S. Korean politics but upon closer inspection I realized that the movie plays an interesting role in the real-life South Korean political milieu. By exposing the ruling party’s dirty legalistic tricks the film clearly condemns the paranoid, nationalistic mindset that gave rise to National Security Act instituted in the early 1980s that severely limited civil rights in S. Korea. More significantly, the movie is loosely based on the early career of former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun, a civil rights lawyer turned politician whose reforms were often vigorously challenged by more conservative elements in the South Korean government and who, after retiring from politics, committed suicide (not an uncommon choice for contemporary S. Korean politicians) amidst a blurred presidential legacy that included charges of corruption amongst his cabinet and family members. Ironically, after his suicide in 2009 public opinion of Roh improved considerably and The Attorney is a part of the reclamation and redemption of Roh’s legacy.
The Attorney has become a mega-hit in South Korea and is one of the top-ten grossing films of all time there, so its message has clearly resonated for audiences there. It’s an interesting example of the way that commercial cinema can work towards resolving troubling national histories like the NSA and reshape perceptions of controversial public figures like Roh.
opens Feb. 7
AMC Cupertino Square