Dir/scr: Yang Woo-seok. South Korea. 2013. 127mins

The Attorney

Inspired by true events, director Yang Woo-seok’s highly accomplished feature debut featuring local star Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer) on scintillating form about an opportunistic tax attorney who throws away his personal ambitions to defend a group of innocent students falsely accused of political activities and tortured by the military government in Busan, South Korea in the early 1980s has struck a chord with local audiences having now amassed close to $61.3million (around 9 million admissions) since its release on December 18.

Ultimately what works well for The Attorney is a conscious effort to not over do it.

The film has benefited from the busy Christmas season at the box office and a heightened political climate, which has proved to be rather fortuitous given that the attorney played by Song– though never stated in the film – is based on the early years of former late president Roh Moo-hyun when he was a human rights lawyer.

The Attorney, which has topped the local box office every day since its release, set records during the festive window including the highest admissions tally ever on Christmas Day attracting over 640,000 viewers ($4.4m), and strong word-of-mouth led it to make a 9% increase on its second weekend of release (27th- 29th Dec 2013) generating a whopping 1.5 million admissions ($10.4m), and attention is now on whether it can break the all important 10 million admissions mark or the “10-million ticket club” - a landmark used to describe very successful films that surpass this point.

On the international stage, the film will encounter a tougher task given the political context of the film, which is never explained, but the success of the film locally will boost its exposure, and while global audiences will seek a greater understanding of the film’s political undertones, the compelling and inspirational narrative and its high production values along with the strong performances are likely to resonate well when it’s released in North America through Well Go USA in around 25 major cities on February 7.

The film begins by stating that the film is a work of a fiction inspired by true events with no mention of Roh Moo-hyun, but the parallels to his early life are apparent as the film is loosely based on the “Burim” incident of 1981 when the Chun Doo-hwan regime arrested 22 students and teachers on fabricated charges that they were North Korea sympathisers. Roh along with two other lawyers led the legal team that defended the arrested individuals.

In the film it’s an attorney called Song Woo-seok (Song Kang-ho) who after realizing that the son of a restaurant owner where he eats on daily basis has been caught up in this incident and incarcerated and tortured, he decides to take on the case despite the dangers in doing so.

The film’s greatest weakness is where it fails to make a distinction between what is based on actual events and what is fiction, but The Attorney is hardly the first film to do so, and it’s difficult to fault its idealistic intent, which is so wonderfully executed through tremendous leading performance following an unprecedented year for the actor where films he has played a lead in (Snowpiercer, The Face Reader and The Attorney) have now collectively generated over 27.4 million admissions  ($186.5m) in South Korea alone.

Other members of the cast are also superb with particular mention to Kim Young-ae (Confession Of Murder) who plays the mother of the son who is arrested and Kwak Do-won (The Berlin File) who is arguably one of the most convincing villains to have graced local screens in the past year for his performance as the inspector sent to Busan to make the arrests.

Oh Dal-su (The Thieves), one of Korea’s most seasoned actors, who plays Song’s office manager is also a major asset to the cast for the endearing relationship he has with Song. 

In terms of direction, Yang Woo-seok demonstrates a wealth of skills and craftsmanship despite it being his first feature, which he also co-wrote. His talent is evident throughout the film, but it’s in the courtroom where it’s more pronounced where he is able to combine Song Kang-ho’s magnificent leading performance with a unique sense of cinematic space where he gives viewers a tangible sense of the atmosphere in the courtroom through the placing and movement of the camera with the help of cinematographer Lee Tae-yoon.

Ultimately what works well for The Attorney is a conscious effort to not over do it. Although the torture scenes are vivid, Yang is careful to not make it relentless for the audience, and other aspects of the film such as the musical score are adopted with a certain amount of restraint, which helps gives the film a sincere touch.  

Production company:  Withus Film Co. Ltd

International sales:  Finecut, www.finecut.co.kr

Producer: Choi Jae-won

Executive Producer: Kim Woo-taek

Screenplay: Yang Woo-seok, Yoon Hyun-ho

Cinematography: Lee Tae-yoon

Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum

Main cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Young-ae, Oh Dal-su, Kwak Do-won, Im Si-wan