The Attorney (Byeon-ho-in)

Korea (2013) Dir. Yang Woo-seok

We’ve all seen those American films were the kid least likely proclaims to his class to much merriment and derision that he wants to be the President when he grows up. In South Korea a man of humble beginnings did indeed do just that having made his name as a human rights lawyer. That man was the late Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009, and this film is based on a pivotal incident in his early career that lead to his national fame and future Presidency.

In 1978, Song Woo-Seok (Song Kang-Ho) a married father of two young children finally passed the bar and sets himself up as a tax attorney. The business grows quickly as does Song’s reputation while remembering his roots, repaying an old debt to restaurant owner Choi Soon-Ae (Kim Young-Ae). A few years later in 1981 Choi’s student activist son Jin-Woo (Im Shi-wan) is arrested by police for supposed anti-government activities under the National Security Law by Inspector Cha Dong-yeong (Gwak Do-won) who tortures false confession from Jin-Woo and other young men. Previously ignorant of political issues and loyal to his profession, Song turns down a substantial deal to represent Jin-Woo in court at the request of Choi.

First time helmer Yang Woo-seok has picked quite the story for his debut feature not just for the sheer potency of the subject matter but the weight of dramatising the early life of a former South Korean President. The genesis of this project was a webtoon of Yang’s creation and it seems the legend of Roh Moo-hyun remains strong among nationals as The Attorney is one of the most successful films of recent times in South Korea cracking over ten millions admissions in mere weeks, only the tenth film to do so.

After watching this film it is no surprise that Roh Moo-hyun’s Presidential term was fraught with controversy and fervent clashes with opposition parties that saw him hounded from office. But that was what happened to Rho Moo-hyun in later life – this film is concerned with the major incidents that formed his future human rights stance.

When we first meet Song he is handing out business cards to attract new clients and being something of a joke among his fellow barristers when he is accepted by the bar. With money as his motivation Song is happy to have an influx of clients and even uses his skills to make an unsolicited attempt to buy a specific apartment from its shocked owner (Lee Jung-Eun), for sentimental reasons we learn via flashback, which also involves the first meeting between Song and Choi.

It takes almost an hour for the main story of what came to be known as the “Burim Case” to arrive, with Yang having sufficiently built up the characters and the way of life at the time in South Korea, at that point under the ruling of a military junta. The meat of the second hour explores the horrific injustices meted out against the young men and the corrupt bodies using every convenience at their disposal to cover up their acts.

The film follows a fairly conventional pattern in presenting the court case and Song as the “one man vs the system” hero of the hour, an uphill struggle as the prosecution attorney (Jo Min-Gi) and the judge (Song Young-Chang) are all part of the same group. Song’s constant thread of attack is the value and remit of upholding the law and seeing justice is done. At first Song is not taken seriously due to his tax background but he floors them in his opening gambit with his knowledge of basic protocol that works in his favour.

Despite being 45 year-old, Yang’s film inexperience is exposed during the actual filming of the court scene, relying on heavily favoured camera techniques and shot compositions. For instance, Yang relies on a lot of revolving steadicam shots although it works to great effect for one of Song’s final and brutally passionate deliveries. However the incisive script and the sturdy performances are strong enough to cover up this little niggle, and draw the viewer into the heart of the courtroom and the trial itself.

A veritable masterstroke by Yang was have one national hero portray another national hero portray on film. I refer of course to the inestimable Song Kang-Ho, who is arguably the most famous male Korean face for international film fans as well as being a great actor to boot. He starts out playing Song as a charismatic and charming family man who begins to take his earned wealth for granted but the second half is where he unleashes his dramatic chops and owns the screen as Song the tax attorney becomes Song the pitbull.

Song (the actor) is given superb opposition in the court room from Jo Min-Gi and Gwak Do-won as the prosecutor and Cha Dong-yeong respectively, both of whom are delightfully despicable and easily hateable. Providing capable support as Choi is veteran Kim Young-Ae who is great as the sturdy matriarch while Song (the character) forms a nice double act with his office assistant Park Dong-Ho (Oh Dal-Su).

One true surprise comes in the form of Im Shi-wan aka Siwan as Jin-Woo, known more for being a member of the K-Pop boyband ZE:A. Instead of the usual fluff role pop stars usually get, Shi-wan throws himself into the deep end with an emotionally draining and physically challenging role that sees him beaten, abused and tortured as well as having to bear his soul, a far cry from the glamorous world of pop videos. Shi-Wan equips himself rather well here and has a future in acting if he so desires.  

Rookie Yang should feel blessed that not only has he made a very impressive if by the numbers debut in The Attorney but he got such a passionate and virile performance out of one of Korea’s greatest actors, creating a new reputation while cementing the other in one film.