If you look up stills from The Attorney, you’re going to have a wildly inaccurate perception of what the film is supposed to be. Look at the poster. They’re happy, right? Below you’ll find another image of people being happy. Head to Google, everyone is happy happy happy. You see that and you think, “Is this a lighthearted courtroom drama?” And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, because most of the released images give that impression. I had to go out of my way to find the more other, more somber image below.
The Attorney isn’t happy. There’s some laughter, especially in the first half of the film, but it’s a film about a particularly unpleasant time in recent Korean history, and what initially appears to be that lighthearted drama quickly turns into something very, very dark.
[For the next week, we will be covering the 2014 New York Korean Film Festival. For more information, check here. For all of our coverage, click here.]
The Attorney (Byeonhoin | 변호인)
Director: Yang Woo-suk
Country: South Korea
The Attorney is a history lesson. Rather, it’s a film with enough historical elements that it makes you realize you need a history lesson to truly understand it. Although lead actor Song Kang-ho’s character is named Song Woo-suk, he is based off of Roh Moo-hyun, a tax lawyer who became increasingly political during the 1980s until he finally became the ninth president of South Korea. And though Woo-suk/Moo-hyun is the centerpiece of The Attorney, it’s as much about torture and abuse perpetrated by police in the name of “national security.” It is more specifically about the 1981 Burim Case, when 22 members of a book club were arrested under the suspicion of communism.
In the film at least, Woo-suk becomes a part of this almost by accident. He was a very successful tax lawyer, an innovator in his field by going to the money before anyone realized money was there to be had. And he has a particular fondness for a woman who runs a soup shop. Her son was one of the students on trial, and she begs for Woo-suk to help. He brings her to see her son, who has been effectively missing for months, and that’s when things get weird.
The moment when her son walks into the visiting room is the moment The Attorney changes. It’s the moment when the film stops being funny and starts being disturbing. It happens right at the halfway point. The boy comes in and instead of greeting his mother, he mutters about how well he is being treated and how wrong he has been. At first glance, he has been brainwashed, but it’s really much simpler than that. Woo-suk sees the bruises literally covering his body before he is pulled back to his cell, and it’s clear what’s happened.
The Attorney, then, is a film about torture. And in its second half, the audience is subjected to that torture. It’s like National Security would be if we ever left prison. Under the guise of “national security,” the police committed truly heinous acts of torture. And Woo-suk (and Moo-hyun) made it their mission to bring the people who committed these acts of torture to justice, despite the risk involved in doing so. It was a kangaroo court, where the verdict was guilty from the outset and everyone agreed. The rest of the defense was ready to let the prosecution win, because that’s how it worked. Only Woo-suk’s commitment to his country’s constitution turned it into something meaningful. It seems overwrought, as Woo-suk is dragged out of court shouting about how justice is dead or whatever, but to condense what was likely a much more complicated legal battle into an hour makes it a bit more acceptable. There’s not enough time for subtlety, so The Attorney hits you in the face with the difference between right and wrong.
But then again, why isn’t there enough time for subtlety? That gets at the heart of what The Attorney really is, and I’m conflicted about it. This is a movie about torture, but it’s a movie about Woo-suk AKA Moo-hyun. And it’s a film about a turning point in Moo-hyun’s life, the thing that made him see the light, as it were, and fight against injustice. The torture is not just torture but is also the evil that changed Moo-hyun. And in order to tell the story of that change, there needs to be two different movies. There needs to be Part 1: The Comedy, about a high-school graduate who just follows the money. Otherwise Part 2: The Tragedy doesn’t mean anything. It’s the yin to the yang that makes the transition work.
Or it should, but it doesn’t. Not really. Because the moment of transition is so immediate that the inner turmoil is missing. He’s blind and then he sees. He doesn’t have a crisis of faith and there’s never really a question of what he’ll do. That vital moment to the story of The Attorney there simply isn’t there, and without it the arc of the character suffers. As a viewer, I never questioned his actions, because what he’s doing is capital-G Good. He is fighting for those that the system has not only abandoned but actively turned against. And in that second half, his mission matters more than his story. Even though he remains the protagonist and the film continues to follow him, it stops being about Woo-suk. It’s about the people he’s representing.
And that matters in exactly the same way National Security matters. That is a film that forces you, the viewer, to think about torture. The Attorney makes you think about torture, but it also makes you think about the role of law. This question of what is and isn’t legal and/or acceptable under the guise of “national security” is explicitly addressed during testimony, and it’s actually kind of glossed over, and that’s unfortunate, because that’s really what makes The Attorney significant, especially to an international audience. Especially to an American audience.
So it’s unfortunate that so much of The Attorney is focused on something else. Roh Moo-hyun matters, and his life story matters. This isn’t really a biopic, but it’s not not that either. But the person is made less interesting by what he is up against. If the second hour of the film followed the first in a more direct way, continuing to tell the story of Woo-suk as he went to Seoul and opened a tax law firm and took over the world, that would have been a fine movie. But the second half cannibalizes the first half and makes it seem irrelevant by comparison. That’s a fundamental problem with the narrative.
But the second half is effective enough that I can’t be too hard on it as a whole. I can wish that the trial had taken up more of the film and that more consideration was given to the question of what a government can and cannot do in a time of war, and I can see lost potential there. But this is still a story about a person first and foremost, and although it misses the mark in really capturing the radical shift of this historical figure, what surrounds it works well enough to make for a film that is undoubtedly worth watching.
[The Attorney will be screening at BAM on Friday, November 21st at 7 PM.]