Woo-Seok (played by Song Kang-ho) is an average, fairly unremarkable family man. Through sheer willpower he's able to make a name for himself as a lawyer. Song Kang-ho exhibits a strong degree of relatable charm in the role. Woo-Seok is no hero, and indeed, for the most part he's satisfied with life so long as he's able to support his wife and kids. That would be all there is to this story- except that his law practice starts out in 1978. Big changes are afoot in the political situation, and Woo-Seok soon finds himself having to make a choice.
It's not as dramatic as that sentence makes it sound, honestly. Because, again, Woo-Seok is the middle-aged man next door who always sticks up for his friends because that's what good guys do. The event that forces Woo-Seok to engage in courtroom lawyer antics is remarkable for its sheer pettiness. Even in the most negative possible reading of the situation, how could padded beatings, waterboarding and hanging torture possibly be justified?
Well, that's just the big inconvenience when police are given Infinite Power to interrogate suspects on the slightest evidence. Everything gets really depressing really fast. Even as Woo-Seok is the heart of "The Attorney", the narrative spotlight is squarely on those poor souls he has to end up helping. Why? At first it's just because they're his friends, and he knows them personally. But the longer the film drags on, the more Woo-Seok realizes that this is a problem way bigger than him.
And that's the main inspiring part that makes "The Attorney" worth watching- is that however impossible the siutation gets, however blatant the intimidation, Woo-Seok doesn't give up. On a basic ethical level the idea that he even could give up is morally abhorrent. If not Woo-Seok who? If not in the pit of the dictatorship when? Given the absurd stream of magical words the state is willing to invoke in a shallow situation like this, imagine The Depths they'd go to deal with an actual threat.
Yes, magical words. In a way all legal drama basically boil down to a duel over magical words, but "The Attorney" is relatively unique in the fact that the story practically spells out directly just how absurd the concept is. This isn't Harry Potter, where there's semi-coherent unchanging rules behind the magic. The legal system of a dictatorship, when faced with a situation where they might lose, will just make up new rules wholesale, precedent be darned. It's an elaborate farcical joke that would be a lot funnier if torture wasn't involved.
"The Attorney" has strong performances and a compelling storyline- but to be entirely honest it isn't that original or gamebreaking a concept in storytelling terms. In terms of messaging and emotional power, though, this is an excellent film that does a lot to dispel naive notions about the inherent justice of the system and why us normal folk should simply stay out of the way. Woo-Seok could have chosen to do that. He instead decided to fight for what's right. After all, if the supposedly good-natured everymen don't stand up for what's right, who else is there?
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Attorney""
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