February 10, 2014
"The Attorney": The South Korean Film Portrays South Korean Politics
For those unfamiliar with South Korean history and politics, this movie, now playing at theaters in major North American cities with English subtitles (opened Feb.7), may seem like an average-lawyer-turned-activist-fighting-for-justice film. But the lawyer portrayed in this film is no ordinary person -- he is former President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea.
The life/career-changing turn of events depicted in the film shows Roh's transformation from an ordinarily lawyer to a lawyer-activist devoted to defending cases related to human rights, social justice and fairness, which led him to the front of the pro-democracy civil movement in South Korea that ultimately brought down the military dictatorship, and all the way to the Blue House, the presidential office.
The film also highlights the pervasive and underlying obsession in the South Korean society with "national security." Due to harsh and polarized memories of the Korean War and the division of Korea, successive dictatorships and authorities in power in South Korea deemed convenient and easy to falsely label and prosecute all kinds of legitimate opposition and dissent as violations of South Korea's draconian National Security Law, in which, most times, legitimate protests and expressions are labelled as pro-North Korea and aiding North Korea and thereby requiring harsh and no-questions-asked prosecutions and punishments. In most of these cases, torture was used to extract false confessions that legitimized fabricated or exaggerated charges. These cases "surfaced" from time to time in order to quell down domestic dissent or to overshadow government's crisis or ineptitude. Despite attempts to amend the National Security Law, it still stands and is applied even during democratic governments.
This surprising blockbuster, the first film directed by Yang Woo-suk, is currently on the sixth place on all-time attendance numbers in South Korea, which seems to resonate with the South Korean populace -- the older generations who have experienced this tumultuous period, as well as the younger generation born after this period. This movie starts out with comic moments, but turns into a serious court drama that depicts the dark era of political repression and human rights abuse in South Korea, as well as optimism for change and progress. This film is highly recommended to non-Koreans as it not only depicts the subtleties of South Korean politics but also tells of universal yearnings for justice and fairness.