Although “The Attorney” may not have nearly the same sociopolitical resonance for audiences outside South Korea, where it was a major box office hit, director Yang Woo-seok’s impressive debut feature should have significant offshore appeal as a sturdily constructed and intelligently compelling courtroom melodrama. Of course, it helps immeasurably that Song Kang-ho (“Snowpiercer,” “The Good the Bad the Weird”) propels the fact-based plot with a charismatic lead performance — as a self-described “greedy tax attorney,” also named Song, who defends a college student accused of subversive activities — while evincing a star power quite capable of transcending any language barriers.
Set in the late 1970s and early ’80s, during the South Korean military dictatorship led by Chun Doo-hwan, “The Attorney” feels at once period-specific and uncomfortably timely as it details misdeeds committed in the name of national security. Yang and co-scripter Yoon Hyun-ho borrow freely from a real-life case involving the arrest and torture of student protestors, and fashions a familiar yet gripping narrative about an unlikely hero who surprises no one more than himself when he is driven to extremes by idealism and moral outrage.
The beguilingly light early scenes briskly introduce Song Woo-seok as an unabashedly ambitious workhorse who establishes a thriving business in Busan, despite his lack of a college degree, as a tax and real estate lawyer. At first, his circumstances are so modest that he and his wife half-playfully, half-seriously meow like cats to scare rats away from their apartment. Before long, however, he is bringing home bags of money and then resettling his family in a luxury apartment that, during his salad days as a construction worker, he helped build.
Even as he grows ever more prosperous, however, Song never forgets –—and, as he sees it, is never allowed to forget — his humble origins. He feels slighted and mocked by better-educated and more “respectable” lawyers (who, it should be noted, aren’t too proud to cut into his business). And he has little sympathy for college students who take time away from their studies to protest against repressive government policies designed to stifle dissent.
But Song has a change of heart – and, indeed, is gradually radicalized — after the young son (Lim Si-wan) of an old friend is arrested during a round-up of alleged subversives, and tortured into a false confession of crimes against the state. At great risk to his law practice, among other things, Song signs on as the student’s defense attorney, pitting himself against a rigged legal system, a corrupt media and zealots who use the National Security Law as a license for advanced interrogation techniques.
Song skillfully generates a rooting interest in his namesake character by making the lawyer’s evolution both dramatically credible and emotionally satisfying. Yang and Yoon might have done well to better develop Inspector Cha (Kwak Do-won), the grimly efficient overseer of the interrogation team, as a worthy antagonist for the crusading attorney. (At time, he recalls Jack Nicholson’s fire-breathing martinet from “A Few Good Men.”) But Kwak comes off as more than sufficiently driven and intimidating, conveying much with a minimum of dialogue when the inspector briefly references his father’s death during the Korean War.
The pacing gradually accelerates after a leisurely first act, so that “The Attorney” easily sustains interest, and often stirs emotions, throughout pre-trial preparations and extended courtroom scenes. Supporting players — especially Kim Young-ae as the anxious mother of Song’s client — are first-rate across the board, and hit all the right notes. Production values are such that the period flavor is maintained unobtrusively, yet credibly.