‘Attorney’ a huge success, but blurs facts

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‘Attorney’ a huge success, but blurs facts


Actor Song Kang-ho plays the main character, Song Woo-seok, in the film “The Attorney.” [JoongAng Ilbo]

“The Attorney” became the 10th movie to break the 10 million admissions mark in Korea - the number used as the standard these days to distinguish a runaway blockbuster. Except for the No. 1 of all time, “Avatar” (2009), which had 13.2 million, the rest of those top blockbusters were all Korean films. But none of them aroused such a controversy even before its release as “The Attorney” did.

As is widely known, the leading character Song Woo-seok, played by Song Kang-ho, was modeled on the late president Roh Moo-hyun, who himself has a controversial legacy in Korean society. The movie is loosely based on the infamous “Burim case” of 1981, when more than 20 students, teachers and workers in a book club in Busan were falsely accused of being Communists by the new military government of Chun Doo Hwan. In real life, Roh defended the accused. In the film, Song is a tax lawyer, rich from his practice but an outcast in legal circles because he passed the bar exam without ever earning a university degree.

Due to the controversial politics surrounding Roh, the movie has generated a lot of heat since its first preview. Right-wing groups reportedly flooded online sites with bad reviews, while left-wing groups praised the film unconditionally. Currently, about 80,000 people have voted on the movie on Naver, the country’s largest web portal (by comparison, just 14,000 have voted for “Face Reader,” another huge Song Kang-ho hit from September).

As though the producers had expected controversy, “The Attorney” smartly positioned itself, saying in the opening of the movie that it is “based on a true story” but “is a work of fiction.” It kept its distance from being “the biography of the late president Roh,” or “Roh Moo-hyun, the politician.” Instead, it centers around the humanity of an attorney named Song Woo-seok, who used to live a life obsessed with money but turns into a human rights attorney.

The logic behind the trial scene in the film is also simple. “Article 1, section 2 of the constitution of the Republic of Korea states that the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea resides in the people and all state authority emanates from the people. ‘The state’ means the people,” says Song Woo-seok during the movie’s most famous trial scene. That drama succeeded in pulling in middle-aged people who lived through that era as well as the younger generation in their 20s and 30s.

Despite the film stating that it is a fictionalized account of real-life events, audiences seem to have confused fact and fiction. For example, in the film, Song decides to defend college students of the Burim case because one was the son of a woman to whom Song was indebted.

However, Roh explained events differently in his autobiography.


“At that time in Busan, Lee Hung-rok and Kim Gwang-il were the only two lawyers who regularly took human rights cases. I couldn’t take the case because the prosecutor blackmailed me, saying that he’d add the names of those two lawyers to this case if I did. But I decided to take it anyway because I didn’t want to remain indifferent to the complaints that they were short of hands.”

Moreover, in the movie, the army surgeon who witnessed the torture of the accused appears dramatically during the fifth trial. However, director Yang Woo-seok says that this did not happen in real life.

Experts have different opinions about the success of “The Attorney.” “The movie was able to draw so many people in such a short period because there is something that people find sympathetic,” said Kim Joong-baeck, a sociology professor at Kyung Hee University. “I believe the fact that the movie deals with communication in a time of disconnectedness brings people together.”

Similarly, Whang Sang-min, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, said its success comes from audience empathy. “People see the protagonist and think that they too could have or should have lived a similar life - that life isn’t about money but truth.”

But film critic Park Woo-seong expressed discomfort with the film. “The movie inflames the issues more than needed through its cinematic techniques, like with the rising score and frequent closeups,” said Park. “But the issue is already so hot. We don’t need more heat, we need coolness.”

BY LEE HOO-NAM, LIM JU-RI AND LEE YOON-SEOK [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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