Dir: Im Sang Soo. Korea. 104 mins. 2003
As an examination of the sexual shenanigans of a bourgeois couple, A Good Lawyer's Wife is a polished domestic drama, rich in energetic sex scenes and frank dialogue. And it carries a gut-wrenching twist mid-way through.
For Korean audiences the elements of social commentary - references to the Korean War, adoption and cross-generation cohesion - may have made this a rich mix and propelled it to an impressive 1.75 million admissions at the box office.However, many of these side-stories are underplayed or unnecessary and may get lost in translation. What is left for international audiences outside of the Asian region, Southern Europe and beyond the festival circuit, where it should do well, is a distinctly European, and not hugely original, "comedie dramatique."
The film feels rather French. A comfortably-off, middle-class couple use sex with others as therapy for their inability to come to terms with the banalities of their marriage and the macho elements of Korean society. Lawyer Youngjak (Hwang Jungmin) supposedly works late, but really visits his mistress. His pretty wife Hojung (Moon Sori) stays at home, keeping herself in shape and masturbating, before warming to the advances of an immature teenage neighbour.
Like Spanish cinema, which for 20 years reflected the new freedoms available to society after the fall of Franco, many Korean film-makers are today pushing the barriers of on-screen sex and examining the impact of the country's burgeoning wealth. Director Im Sang Soo's oeuvre runs very much in this vein - his first film Girls Night Out tracked the promiscuity of a trio of girls, while his best feature, Tears, was a grittier portrait of druggie teens on the edge of society. Lawyer's Wife earns itself notoriety through frank and frequent sex scenes, which would have been deemed impossible in Korea a decade ago.
The story takes a more serious turn when, after a drunken evening with his girlfriend, Youngjak runs over a man with his car. The man survives but later takes his revenge by kidnapping and killing the couple's seven year-old son. The murder is quick and cold, but so too are Hojung and Youngjak's reactions. Instead of tearing each other apart, they drift in different directions and the film ends with Hojung announcing that she is pregnant by another man.
The film is peppered with sub-plots, but it might have been stronger if some had been removed. The chronic liver problems of Youngjak's father provide a reality check when compared with the humdrum ordinariness of the couple's relations. The issue of the son's adoption raises questions about the couple's ability to acquire anything they want and how much they actually care about anything that they can buy. But the grandmother announcing that she has had her first orgasm comes across as a cheap shot, while the purpose of the opening scene with Youngjak in a mass war grave is largely irrelevant.
The efforts of director Im and cinematographer Kim Woo Hyung are polished and elegant. And the film further establishes Moon as an actress of daring - she won a prize in Venice last year as a severely handicapped woman in Lee Chang Dong's Oasis - and class.Prod co: Myung Films.
Int sales: E Pictures.
Korean dist: Big Blue Film
Exec prod: Shim Jae Myung.
Prods: Shim Bo Kyung, Shin Chut.
Cinematographer: Kim Woo Hyung.
Ed: Lee Eun Soo.
Mus: Kim Hong Jaeb.
Prod des: Oh Jae Won.
Cast: Moon Sori, Hwang Jung Min, Bong Taekyu, Baek Jung Rim.