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Attorney (Byeonhoin), The
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by Jay Seaver

"Korean for "Oscar bait", but still plenty entertaining."
4 stars

"The Attorney" (or "Byeon-ho-in") made its way to the United States rather quickly after its box-office success in South Korea, taking just a month and a half to cross the Pacific. It isn't hard to see why it did so well there; it's a crowd-pleaser that hits a bingo between being an underdog tale, an examination of the country's years as a dictatorship, and a star vehicle for Song Kang-ho.

He plays Song Woo-seok, a self-educated Busan attorney who made it big in the late 1970s by specializing in real estate and tax law, areas generally not covered by respectable lawyers. His life takes a turn when Park Jin-woo (Siwan), the son of Choi Soon-ae (Kim Young-ae), the owner of the stew shop where Song has been getting who has been cooking his lunch for years, is arrested on a trumped-up National Security charge, and all the other lawyers are content to just negotiate the length of the sentence.

There's a certain amount of excess bulk to The Attorney; a good chunk of the start of the movie is not only spent on Song Woo-seok establishing his practice, but flashing back even earlier to when he was a young laborer who could barely afford books, much less a college education. Later on Cha Dong-young (Kwak Do-won), the officer responsible for Jin-woo's arrest and torture, is given the sort of introduction that suggests a parallel story rather than what amounts to the villain role. It's not exactly wasted time - Cha does need some build-up and Song Woo-seok's unorthodox approach to making a living as an attorney figures heavily in how he attacks the movie's main case - but it does leave the build-up to the trial and that main event a little compacted as a result, with a final flash forward pinching it from the other end.

Building the film this way keeps Song Kang-ho front and center, and that's generally no bad thing. At least from the vantage point of the West, he's one of South Korea's best and most ubiquitous character actors (although how much of that reflects him frequently being cast by internationally-popular directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho versus his actual popularity at home, I'm not sure), dropping into all sorts of different roles, and that actually makes the way he plays Song Woo-seok kind of surprising: This sort of bright, cheerfully hustling leading-man role often seems far removed from the scruffy guys whose disreputable image may hide more cunning than expected that he often plays, and it often feels uncharacteristically vanilla. In a way, though, that's just another layer; the working-class guy is always underneath that veneer, and even when he's going big in the courtroom with a fairly showy performance, it works in large part because of what Song and writer/director Yang Woo-seok have built up before.

And while Yang maybe takes a little more time on the build-up than necessary, the way he pays it off makes what could be a mediocre movie very satisfying. For as much as the story of Jin-woo and his book club being arrested for reading supposedly subversive literature by an out-of-control dictatorship can often be played for easy moral outrage, and how a materialistic lawyer becoming a man of principle is often an easy cliché, they can make a movie boringly solemn. Yang does an impressive job of countering that making sure we see that for all Song Woo-seok may be charging hard at this case for earnest, noble reasons, there's also a stubborn and pugnacious streak to him that may be a character flaw, but one the audience shares: We don't just want to see these innocent college kids exonerated, we want to see Song punch the entire society that has been looking down on him in the figurative nose, even when it might be self-destructive or when that "society" is much bigger than the Busan legal community.

Granted, that at times leads to odd bits of tunnel vision, such as the courtroom scenes where Song only seems to be defending the one defendant we've met rather than the entire group of nine standing right there. It's also clarity of purpose, allowing the movie to be a rousing entertainment, switching up its tones on demand while still getting consistent performances from Kim Young-ae, Jung Won-joong, and Kwak Do-won in the supporting parts. It might be a bit of an award-chasing movie, but it's one that connects to the audience on the way.

Naturally, it won't quite connect to foreign audience the way it did back home; the plot and procedure are fairly Korea-specific even if the emotion comes through quite clearly. Besides, seeing a "That Guy"-type character actor get a big leading role is almost always fun, even (or especially!) if he is "that guy from those foreign movies".

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originally posted: 02/10/14 04:23:23
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2/15/14 NqRFPwkUSma XNBhEJlXWQAB 3 stars
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  07-Feb-2014 (NR)
  DVD: 17-Jun-2014



Directed by
  Woo-seok Yang

Written by
  Woo-seok Yang
  Hyeon-ho Yoon

  Kang-ho Song
  Yeong-ae Kim
  Si-wan Yim
  Dal-su Oh
  Do Won Kwak

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