Postcard: Seoul

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am

It's not uncommon for a film to mean something slightly different to local, as opposed to international, viewers. But South Korean feature The Attorney, which opens in Hong Kong on Thursday, is a particularly unusual case.

On the surface, it is a moving and inspiring story about a lawyer defending a group of students who fall victim to police torture during the South Korean military dictatorship in the early 1980s. But like an iceberg, there is a massive, unspoken back-story.

But you don't have to be intimately familiar with the back-story of this dramatic work in order to enjoy or appreciate it. In early May at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, The Attorney received the second-highest score in audience voting among the 53 Asian features that screened there.

The plot is easy to relate to: lead actor Song Kang-ho plays a lawyer from humble origins who makes a fortune early on in his career by offering tax advice. But when the son of a woman he owes an emotional debt to is arrested and tortured by the authorities, he is forced to decide between maintaining his successful practice and standing up to the military dictatorship. This story depicts the birth of an individual's social conscience, and Song has been widely praised for the depth of feeling he brings to the role.

Although there is no direct reference in the film, The Attorney is based closely on the early career of South Korea's ninth president, Roh Moo-hyun. Roh, too, was a tax attorney before shifting to specialise in human rights cases. After becoming active in the country's democratisation movement of the late 1980s, he moved into politics.

Roh was elected president at the end of 2002, setting off a wave of euphoria among young progressives similar to that which greeted Barack Obama after his election in the US. But Roh ended up serving a rocky and disappointing tenure in office from 2003 to 2008. Then in a tragic turn of events, he committed suicide in May 2009. His memory and legacy are still sources of sharp debate in South Korean politics.

The Attorney covers only up to the resolution of the 1981 court case, and does not refer to Roh by name. (Song Woo-seok, the name of the main character, is an amalgam of the actor's family name and director Yang Woo-seok's given name.) During advance marketing of the movie, neither print advertisements nor trailers mentioned Roh directly.

But the film makes clear in its early credits that it is "a work of fiction inspired by true events" and thanks to word of mouth, the source of the narrative was known by all in South Korea. Consequently, The Attorney landed in domestic theatres last December like a tossed grenade.

South Korea's politics, which are characterised by strong regional and generational divisions, have turned sharply to the right under Roh's successors, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye (the daughter of 1970s-era dictator Park Chung-hee). Its film industry, like Hollywood, is broadly viewed as being left of centre politically, so observers were keen to see if The Attorney would engage in point scoring at the expense of current political leaders.

Although the governing Saenuri party denounced the work as complete fiction, viewers who carried fond memories of Roh embraced it with fervour. The Attorney rocketed to the No1 spot during the peak winter box office season, and became the ninth domestic film to cross the 10 million admissions mark.

On internet portals, The Attorney received some of the highest viewer scores in history. Comments featured gushing praise for the film and messages addressed to the late president such as "I miss you" and "I respect you".

Director Yang says he had been developing the idea of turning Roh's early life experiences into a film even before the 2002 election. Yang is unusual in the film industry for making his directing debut at the late age of 44, but critics have praised his directorial skills and he has won numerous local awards.

His decision to structure the film not as a political polemic, but as a warm family drama that foregrounds the main character's turn towards idealism seems key to its appeal. The degree to which non-Korean audiences are responding to it suggests the story he is telling is bigger than any one person.

The Attorney opens on Thursday