Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Attorney: He Also Does Taxes

Depending on who you ask, the late ROK President Roh Moo-hyun was either a principled idealist or a corrupt demagogue. A new film unequivocally holds to the former view. A thinly fictionalized Roh will argue a life-altering, inspired-by-true-events case in Yang Woo-seok’s The Attorney (trailer here), which opens this tomorrow in New York.

Even though he never graduated from high school, Song Woo-seok became a self-taught bar-certified attorney (sort of like Lincoln). He even briefly served as a judge, but resigned to pursue a more lucrative practice, for the sake of his family. Recognizing an early opportunity, Song becomes one of the first to take advantage of a legal change allowing attorneys to register property deeds in place of a notary. At first, the legal establishment is openly contemptuous of the bounder. Then the business starts pouring in.

Eventually, other attorneys starting competing for Song’s real estate business, so Song once again makes a shrewd move into a tax practice. Ironically, when the paper-pushing Song finally litigates a case, the fix is in right from the start.  In acknowledgement of a debt from his early scuffling years, Song reluctantly agrees to represent Jin-woo, the son of a forgiving noodle shop proprietor. Unfortunately, this is no ordinary criminal case, but a dubious national security prosecution, with confessions already lined up courtesy of the ruthless Captain Cha Dong-young.

When it gets down to political business, The Attorney is certainly not shy about waving the bloody martial law shirt. However, the first half of the film is actually a rather touching story of hard work and sacrifice rewarded, in the tradition of The Pursuit of Happyness.  Song Woo-seok (a fusion of the director and star’s names) is an earnest everyman, who earns his piece of the pie the old fashioned (but unfashionable) way.

Of course, once the sainted Soon-ae’s son is arrested, The Attorney shifts into high moral outrage gear. Korean box office superstar Song Kang-ho leaves it all on the field as his half namesake, wringing all the righteous indignation and heroic sincerity he can out of the courtroom cross examinations. At least Yang and co-writer Yoon Hyun-ho step back from the Few Good Men, acknowledging an experienced government employee like Cha will never cop to ordering a “Code Red” on the stand.

Fans of Song Kang-ho, Korea’s top domestic movie star, should probably seek out The Attorney, despite its excesses, because there is no telling how much of him will be left once Harvey Weinstein finishes editing Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer with a hacksaw. Yet, it is veteran actress Kim Young-ae who really instills the film with dignified sensitivity as honorable gravitas as Soon-ae. It is also amusing to see Oh Dal-su (Oldboy’s sleazy private prison warden) do his shtick as Song-Woo-seok’s sitcomish office manager. Unfortunately, Kwak Do-won (a great villain in A Company Man) largely phones in Cha, the cold fish.

In a way, The Attorney sort of confirms the theory political liberty inevitably follows economic liberty.  After all, Song Woo-seok sure is busy with real estate transactions in the early 1980’s. While the performances are mostly quite impressive, it never really captures the telling period details. Without the narrative reference points, viewers might mistake it for a contemporary legal drama. While it is sure to stoke political debate in Korea, The Attorney is only recommended for American viewers with a crack cocaine level addiction to legal table-pounding melodramas when it opens tomorrow (2/7) in New York at the AMC Empire.