INNOCENT WITNESS (2019)
Emotionally charged courtroom drama comes alive with two outstanding lead performances
The odd couple pairing of the ambitious defense lawyer and autistic schoolgirl combine in Innocent Witness to great effect thanks to the performances which punctuate this feel-good drama.
Jung Woo-sung plays Soon-ho, a talented but morally conflicted defense lawyer, while Kim Hyang-gi takes on the role of Ji-woo, the atypical teen with a fierce intellect but severe social anxiety owing to her autism.
Soon-ho is a former human rights lawyers forced to chase the pay checks of defense work to cover his father’s debts and is assigned a murder case. He defends Mi-ran, a housekeeper accused of murdering her employer, an elderly man she claims was trying to commit suicide when she tried, but failed, to intervene.
The only witness to this murder or suicide is 15-year old Ji-woo, who saw the drama unfold from her house opposite. To get his client off the hook, Soon-ho insists on Ji-woo's testimony taking place in court and then attempts to befriend the girl ahead of the hearing.
In opposition for the prosecution is Hee-joong (Lee Kyu-hyung), a younger and far more nervous lawyer who has already managed to connect with Ji-woo by better understanding her autism and how this affects her.
Despite the film’s set-up being one of a courtroom drama, it is the character development outside of court that makes it work.
Soon-ho's growing friendship with Ji-woo is one earned as he increasingly understands how her mind work, but his progress with her is tainted by his self-interest.
This concern is compounded as the depth of moral slide needed to succeed at his new law firm become apparent, as he shares late night drinking with prostitutes and his new boss (“I need some dirt on you,” his boss chillingly insists).
His new direction as a lawyer also puts a strain on his still blossoming relationship with Hyun-jung (Jang Young-nam), who continues to fight the good fight by taking on corporations over a sanitary pad which has caused female health problems.
Jung Woo-sung is excellent as Soon-ho, succinctly portraying the moral dilemma of working as a defense lawyer to pay his father’s debts and wanted to help people through the law.
Kim Hyang-gi as Ji-woo is the star-turn which really illuminates though. Kim undertook meticulous research of autism to deliver her performance. It is not just that her Ji-woo is an authentic portrayal of an autistic teen, but rather that the character also manages to build the empathy and understanding towards her.
The film is about comprehending the world through the eyes of someone with autism and that was only achieved through Kim’s performance.
The courtroom exchanges also have enough of that “gotcha” weight as logical lawyers unpick information with forensic amplitude, but the film is not really about that.
It is about the morality of a career working with the law, and whether you will spend it enforcing power dynamics and corporate power, or fight for those who need the most help. The film is an empathy-building machine for a better understanding of autism and how those with it see the world differently.