The family that plays apart stays apart in “A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” a quizzical look at upper middle-class mores by South Korea’s most quietly subversive director, Im Sang-soo. This third feature by Im unites the sexual envelope-pushing of his debut, “Girls’ Night Out,” with the grainier look of his rootless teen drama, “Tears,” to generally satisfying results. Though pic won’t appeal to all tastes and is flawed by a lack of overall purpose, this looks sure to acquire some major fest berths around its skedded early fall release, with niche arthouse exposure down the line.
Though less shocking to Western ears, “Girls’ Night Out” (1998) was a major taboo-breaker in South Korea at the time, with its three leads discussing their sex lives and orgasms in unabashed detail. Ho-jeong (Mun So-ri), the central character in “Lawyer,” could almost be from that earlier pic: A former dancer with an adopted 7-year-old son, she’s now accepted the philandering of her husband, Yeong-jak (Hwang Jeong-min), but is worried she’s losing her G-spot.
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One day, she notices a teenage boy spying on her and eventually follows him to a movie theater, where they talk. One thing leads to another and, when the kid, Ji-un (Bong Tae-gyu), kisses her, she realizes she likes it.
Meanwhile, other developments pull the family every which way. In a blackly humorous sequence that’s typical of the movie’s provocative approach, Yeong-jak’s bon-viveur father (Kim In-mun) dies a grotesque death from liver failure in a hospital. Yeong-jak himself, driving while being orally serviced by his horny mistress (Baek Jeong-rim), almost kills a motorcyclist with his car. And, following her husband’s funeral, Yeong-jak’s elderly mother (Yun Yeo-jeong) happily announces that she’s seeing someone and is having sex for the first time in 15 years.
The way in which these subsidiary stories are all thrown into the mix makes the movie much more a group portrait than the type of film signposted by the English title. (Original Korean title literally means “A Wanton Family.”) However, the focus shifts more to Ho-jeong in the second half as the boy’s repressive businessman father catches the two together in her dance studio and later reports the news to Yeong-taek.
Family life rapidly unravels from here on, with both shocking and darkly humorous sequences that will test many auds’ receptiveness (especially one development involving Ho-jeong’s son). Conclusion is very open-ended.
Though in widescreen and never randomly composed, the film has a slightly restless look that’s initially disconcerting but soon becomes part and parcel of the maverick flavor, in which black comedy and genuine emotion co-exist. And as in his previous movies — especially “Tears” — Im shows he’s one of the few directors who, with almost no nudity, can convincingly portray a sexual charge on screen. One late-on sequence between the wife and the teen is genuinely erotic.
Playing in a totally different key from her cerebral palsy victim in “Oasis,” Mun makes the wife a sexy, vibrant woman who still has her best years ahead of her — and thus a convincing character within the slightly exaggerated terms of the screenplay. Scenes between her and Bong have a strange mixture of tenderness and forthrightness that establishes their bond as two rebels within different confines. Among the rest of the cast, Kim and Yun shine as the two lively oldies, unrepentantly following their destinies.