'The Attorney' is gripping, instructive South Korean history
Classic Hollywood meets South Korean history in The Attorney (Byeon-ho-in), a stirring, fact-based drama about a group of college students in the city of Busan in the early 1980s who were falsely arrested on charges of committing pro-communist seditious activities. They were tortured and subjected to a circus of a show trial.
What makes writer-director Yang Woo-seok's feature debut special is how it handles this shocking incident with verve, style, and humor. It infuses the spirit of American crowd-pleasers such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or To Kill a Mockingbird into an otherwise sober, critical dissection of a dark time in his nation's history.
A huge box-office hit in South Korea, the character-driven film uses a court case to illuminate how the otherwise democratic 1980s-era republic found itself under the thumb of military strongman-turned-president Chun Doo-hwan. His government disregarded civil rights in the name of state security and crushed free speech by manufacturing anti-communist hysteria.
The immensely popular leading man, Song Kang-ho (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), stars as Song Woo-seok, a hustler attorney without an actual law degree who makes a killing practicing real estate and tax law in Busan. He's the epitome of the capitalist success story, living the dream with his sweet wife (Lee Han-na) and their two kids.
His life takes a radical turn when Choi Soon-Ae (Kim Young-Ae), proprietor of his favorite eatery, asks him to look for her son, Park Jin-Woo (pop star Siwan), an engineering major at the local university. He has been missing for a month.
Turns out Jin-Woo is a member of a social-studies book club, made up of kids more interested in young love than anything remotely political, who were rounded up, arrested, and tortured for alleged communist activities.
"If they were real communists, then our country would be in real trouble," decorated police inspector Cha Dong-young (Kwak Do-won) jokes to a colleague as they plot to manufacture a false case against the college students.
In a series of courtroom scenes as moving as anything from Frank Capra and as tense as a John Grisham story, Woo-seok takes a stand against a corrupt system.
At 127 minutes long, The Attorney can drag on a bit, heaping on subplots that add little to the story line. But it's a small failing for an otherwise superb film that should be seen by anyone who cares about the fate of democracy around the globe.
The Attorney ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Yang Woo-seok. With Song Kang-ho, Kim Young-Ae, Siwan, Kwak Do-won. Distributed by Well Go USA.
In Korean with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated (profanity, mild violence, scenes of torture, smoking)
Playing at: Area theaters