What a year 2013 was for veteran Korean actor Song Kang Ho. Already renowned as one of Korea’s finest actors, he cemented that reputation with three stellar performances last year. His first two films, “Snowpiercer” and “The Face Reader,” were two of the top three grossing Korean films of the year. And his recently released hit, “The Attorney,” just surpassed 10 million in ticket sales, making him the star of three of the top four grossing films in 2013.
Based on the early life of former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, “The Attorney” follows a common Korean cinematic formula. The first half of the film establishes the characters without much plot development and then the main conflict is introduced and dominates the second half of the film. While this method of storytelling may be a bit off-putting for American moviegoers, who are used to overly complicated plots without character development, it’s an effective method Korean films utilize to familiarize audiences with the key players before getting into the movie’s main storyline.
Song is given ample opportunity to shine in both halves of “The Attorney” and excels throughout. He plays an attorney named Song Woo Seok, who prioritizes making money over his professional image. Taking advantage of a recent law change that allows attorneys to notarize real estate transactions, he shamelessly promotes his services by handing out his business card to anyone on the street. Raised in the countryside and never having attended college, he is constantly looked down upon by his colleagues for his background and methods. But when a group of young boys in a book club are abducted and tortured by the Korean military as part of the infamous student protests and demonstrations of South Korea in the early ‘80s, Song fearlessly heads into trial to defend the youths against seemingly impossible odds against the Korean government.
While the two halves of “The Attorney” aren’t seamless and some may feel that they are watching two different films, overall the film worked for me. In the first half, I enjoyed getting to know Song and his family and learning about his motivations. Although all of that is more or less dropped later in the film, the courtroom drama in the second half is so effective that you forgive the occasional sloppy writing. Besides basically ignoring most of what happened in the first hour and also introducing an unnecessary side story about a large construction company wanting to hire Song for his services, I thoroughly enjoyed the politics and drama behind the major trial. It reminded me of “A Few Good Men,” one of my favorite films, and I anxiously anticipated a Korean version of a Cruise-Nicholson type of showdown. “The Attorney” does try to emulate that scene and falls a bit short in delivering emotional impact, but overall the film is still very entertaining and carries a powerful message.
“The Attorney,” 127 minutes, is unrated and opens in theaters today.