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The Attorney marks a fascinating departure from the usual South Korean genre fare imported to our shores. Yang Woo-seok’s film, a huge local hit, begins as an amusing character study of a shady lawyer before transforming into an earnest courtroom drama in its second half. While the stylistic transition is far from seamless, the film — set in the early 1980s and based on real-life events involving Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights activist who later became South Korea’s president — benefits from its fascinating storyline and highly charismatic lead performance by Song Kang-ho.
The actor, familiar to American audiences from his roles in such films as Memories of Murder and The Host, plays Song Woo-seok, a lawyer with only a high school education who nonetheless achieves great success thanks to his canny real-estate oriented practice. Disdained by his colleagues for his lack of higher education and his uncouth habit of indiscriminately handing out business cards, Song is content to coast along while raking in the big bucks.
But Song’s social conscience is suddenly awakened in a case involving Park Jin-woo (Lim Si-wan), the college student son of the owner of a restaurant where he once skipped out on a bill during his impoverished days. She befriended him nonetheless, and he repays the favor by agreeing to defend her son when he’s arrested by the oppressive government for the crime of reading seditious communist literature and is brutally tortured into delivering a false confession.
The film’s lighthearted tone shifts gears dramatically when the action moves to the courtroom, where Song delivers an impassioned defense that, in its indictment of the dictatorial regime, is not without significant personal risk.
Unfortunately, the proceedings become increasingly less engrossing as they go along, with the screenplay co-written by the director and Yoon Hyun-ho becoming predictable in its rehashing of familiar courtroom drama tropes. And, as with so many films depicting moral redemption, the central character is far more interesting before his sudden personality transformation.
Still, it delivers an arresting portrait of its era’s repressive political and social conditions that obviously had a strong resonance with viewers in its native country. Despite its shameless manipulations and unsubtle approach, it’s an ambitious and well-intentioned feature debut from a director whose future efforts bear attention.
(Well Go USA Entertainment)
Production: Withus Film Co.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Young-ae, Oh Dal-su, Kwak Do-won, Lim Si-wan
Director: Yang Woo-seok
Screenwriters: Yang Woo-seok, Yoon Hyun-ho
Producer: Choi jae-won
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Lee Tae-yoon
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie
Costume designer: Rim Seung-hee
No MPAA rating, 127 minutes
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