Innocent Witness (Jeungin)

Korea (2019) Dir. Lee Han

“If only she weren’t Autistic”

A line actually spoken in a film apparently designed to help broaden our understanding and knowledge of Autism. Thankfully, this is repudiated by the mother of the autistic girl in question, proclaiming she had never once thought that herself, otherwise it wouldn’t be her daughter. So, how did we get to this moment?

Yang Soon-Ho (Jung Woo-Sung) is a lawyer who recently shifted to a major firm to pay off the debts his dementia-ridden father Kil-Jae (Park Geun-Hyung) accidentally racked up. To test him, Yang is given a pro-bono case by his bosses to defend housekeeper Oh Mi-Ran (Yum Hye-Ran) against a charge of murder against her elderly employer, which she denies, claiming it was suicide.

The details of the death are confusing, made worse by the fact the only witness is Im Ji-Woo (Kim Hyang-Gi), a 15 year-old girl with Autism. Feeling Ji-Woo’s testimony would be deemed unreliable because of her Autism, Soon-Ho tries to have her take the stand at the trial but her mother Hyun-Jung (Jang Young-Nam) refuses to allow it. Undeterred, Soon-Ho befriends Ji-Woo in the hope of gaining her trust and getting her to testify.

Lawyers are known for their underhanded tactics when it comes to winning a case so we shouldn’t be surprised that someone would sooner or later base a story around a lawyer manipulating someone with a mental/neurological condition for their own gain. That this would be a topical issue to address shows director Lee Han is still on a mission to cover relevant social situations in is films, but with Innocent Witness, he could have gone one of two ways with this premise.

Firstly, it could have just been about Soon-Ho’s pernicious exploitation of a vulnerable person to score that courtroom victory and maybe get a partnership out of it. Imagine the backsides Lee could have set fire to had he chosen to expose this as the focus of his story, fictional otherwise. Of course, this is part of the overall narrative as Soon-Ho does eventually slip up and is forced to look at himself and repent, except it is handled with typical schmaltz.

As you may have already surmised, Lee took the second way and chose to make this about Autism, which I do applaud. Regular readers will already be sick of me bringing up my own Autism every time I review a film on this subject, and whilst I can’t claim to be an expert on every aspect of it, I do at least know whereof I speak. Usually, I spend a lot of time discussing the plot in my reviews, so forgive me if I take a slightly different tact in this instance.

Questions arise in my mind about the research done for this film, or more accurately how it is translated and disseminated in Korea, as many clichés, stereotypes, and broad generalisations of dubious veracity are thrown about here. For example, all autistics like puzzles and games, they cannot lie, and being intelligent is atypical for someone on the spectrum. I guess they’ve never met Anne Hegerty then.

Naturally, the first mention of Autism incurs equating it to mental disability, as if Ji-Woo is a head case, and almost by supporting this, she is shown to be childlike, slow witted, uncommunicative, and inattentive. Harking back to Rain Man from 1988, Ji-Woo walks about as if in a stupor, her eyes focused everywhere but in front of her, whilst her fingers are bent into a fixed position.

Hardly presenting a progressive depiction of an Autistic person, this sets the campaign back 32 years. It is important to note that by virtue of being a Spectrum of traits that represent autism, the savant approach seems to be a favoured one in film and TV but serves to be the most misleading. Other facets of Ji-Woo’s condition include counting the spots on Soon-Ho’s tie, having sensitive hearing, and only eating blue sweets.

Ji-Woo has a friend, Shin-Hye (Kim Seung-Yoon), entrusted by Hyun-Jung to look after her at school, but even she turns out to be a nasty bully in a contrived subplot that again could have been more relevant to the main narrative. By this point, Soon-Ho has gained Ji-Woo’s trust so she has a new ally though Hyun-Jung is a little cautious. To his credit, Soon-Ho researches Autism and applies himself to understanding an accommodating Ji-Woo’s quirks, allowing him to use to his advantage in court.

But again, Ji-Woo is presented as a kind of freak show in court and – slight spoiler – when a second trial is required, she is again in a tug of war between the two sides as to whether she is a valid witness. Only this time, it is to do justice for the right reason and not for point scoring, and this completes Soon-Ho’s journey from shallow cynic to decent bloke with a newfound understanding of Autism.

Maybe I am being too subjective with my viewpoint on this aspect of the film, so let me be objective about the rest of it. It is a decent courtroom drama, bolstered by a side story regarding Soon-Ho’s personal life that needed a bit more development to it, whilst the script thankfully avoids many predictable plot beats to make it work.

Despite my reservations of the character, Kim Hyang-Gi is exceptional as Ji-Woo, a 18 year old at the time yet staggeringly convincing as an aberrant 15 year-old, and though I won’t argue against the contention of representation of disabled actors in film, this role does cement Kim’s spot as a talent to watch. The rest of the cast are good too.

Innocent Witness might be a well-meaning venture to help raise awareness about Autism in Korea, but even the best intentions are sometimes clouded. Most people may not see it the way I did, so there is plenty else about this film to enjoy as a conventional, mass consumption feel good drama