THE ATTORNEY (2013)
An intense Song Kang-ho performance anchors a tale of state oppression and paranoia in a shifting Korea as a Busan lawyer defends wrongly accused students
The authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan regime of the 1980s and its battle with a new generation of Koreans is the real-life backdrop to a film which enables one of Song Kang-ho’s finest outing and certainly his staidest performance.
Inspired by the real-life ‘Burim case’ in 1981 where 22 students, teachers and office workers who were part of a book club were arrested without warrants and charged without evidence of being North Korea sympathisers.
While the film’s bulk is on these issues, this is also about Song’s character – Song Woo-suk – based on the real-life Roh Moo-hyun, who eventually served as the ninth president of South Korea from 2003 to 2008.
Song is a lawyer without a degree who is looked down upon by his peers, but contains the intelligence and tenacity to rival any lawyer in the country. His journey towards professional acceptance is in many ways the true narrative spine.
In the late 70s, Song moves to Busan to start his own law firm. As he passed the bar-examination without ever going to university, other lawyers look down on him and sneer at his in-your-face approach to gaining new clients. However, smarts and application outdoes elitism as Song builds a fortune by working in the untapped real estate and taxation spaces.
With a state focus on purging Busan of communists, in 1981 a high school student called Park, the son of a restaurant owner who has grown close to Song, goes missing. His mother despertaly searches for him and two months later he is revealed as part of a group of students who will face trial for sedition.
Despite previously being sceptical of the student protests of the time, Song realises that Park has been tortured and agrees to take on the case. With no court experience, but an unrivalled work ethic and sharpness, Song proves a formidable figure for the state to battle in court.
The Attorney pushes several fury buttons we almost all feel – anger at an authoritarian state, the sense of injustice and intellectual snobbery. Placed within this is the perfectly cast Song, a popular mainstay of Korean cinema, charged with fighting back. Much like the people of the time, we are placed in a frustrating loop. Every time it seems that justice may be served, those in power find a way of bending the favour back towards them.
It has a large stock of standard courtroom devices in film, but we are prepared for the legal battle from the film’s first act following Song and his elbow-grease rise to riches. While The Attorney is about South Korea’s political history, it is also the rags-to-riches tale of Song. His real-life counterpart – despite the many critics of Roh Moo-hyun’s time as president and his tragic end – was still a poor farmer’s child that became his country’s president. This is a film about standing up to authoritarianism, but also about how far dogged-determination can take some.