The Korea Herald


[Herald Review] Revisiting Roh Moo-hyun

‘The Attorney,’ taking cues from late president’s earlier days as a lawyer in the 1980s, attracts 5 million viewers in 12 days

By Claire Lee

Published : Jan. 1, 2014 - 19:33

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Actor Song Kang-ho plays Song Wook-seok, a Busan-based lawyer in the 1980s, in his latest film “The Attorney.” His character is loosely based on the late President Roh Moo-hyun. (NEW) Actor Song Kang-ho plays Song Wook-seok, a Busan-based lawyer in the 1980s, in his latest film “The Attorney.” His character is loosely based on the late President Roh Moo-hyun. (NEW)
Though director Yang Woo-seok’s latest film “The Attorney” specifies in the very beginning that it is “fiction,” it is hard to separate Song Woo-seok, the protagonist of the film and a fierce Busan-based lawyer in the 1980s, and the late President Roh Moo-hyun.

Starring Song Kang-ho, of “Snowpiercer” and “The Face Reader,” who is undoubtedly one of the most famed and respected actors today, the film, which hit its 5 million viewers mark in just 12 days of its release on Monday, revisits Roh’s early days as a lawyer in the 1980s, and a series of life-changing events that made him choose a difficult career path over an easy one. It was during this period that Roh decided to specialize in human rights cases, although he was enjoying a comfortable life as a tax lawyer.

Roh jumped off a cliff to his death in 2009, about a year after he left the nation’s highest office, amid a probe into a corruption scandal involving his family. He was the first South Korean leader to be impeached by the parliament during his presidency, the first with an Internet fan club, and the first to end his life by suicide.

“The Attorney,” which director Yang claims to be “only based on” Roh’s early years as a lawyer, is therefore almost pre-destined to be inseparable from the way he died. The movie portrays the beginning of what eventually led him to his presidency, and the public has already witnessed what happened to him after. The movie revisits the past of someone whose life was undoubtedly extraordinary and whose tragic end left the nation in shock.

The film takes the audience back to Busan in the late 1970s, and Song Woo-seok (played by Song Kang-ho), a stand-in for the young Roh, is making his name as a tax lawyer in Busan. Unlike most other lawyers, who graduated from the nation’s top universities, Song never received any form of higher education.

The self-taught lawyer passed the state bar exam as a graduate from a “commercial high school,” which teaches practical business skills, fostering young people who wish to directly enter the workforce right after graduation, rather than go to college. Song’s unusual academic background ― equivalent to Roh’s ― is often looked down upon by his fellow lawyers, and this isolates him.

Song, however, uses what he learned at the commercial high school, where he familiarized himself with finance. He decides to specialize in tax and registration laws, when many lawyers in Busan are not interested in the field. He even visits nightclubs to spread his name cards. In the beginning of the film, Song is only keen on making money and living a comfortable life, after suffering years of poverty until passing the bar exam.

But his life turns upside down when he receives a visit from the owner of his favorite restaurant. The single mother’s son is one of a group of young students who have been wrongly accused and tortured for possession of “politically unsound” literature and suspicion of being communist sympathizers.

Roh defended a similar case, the so-called “Burim Case” in 1981, which he later described as a “life-changing” event that made him decide to become a human rights lawyer. The case is now widely considered as then-president Chun Doo-hwan’s attempt to cement his authoritarian rule, which he established in a military coup the year before.

The film deftly follows Song’s transformation from an almost shallow individual to the fierce, angry lawyer who discovers his desire to “make a difference” in the world.

What Song stresses the most in the court, ― the Article 1(2) of the constitution of South Korea ― lingers throughout the movie, that “the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people.”

This was Roh’s core value at the time, when he was just discovering what he wanted to do with his life and the world surrounding him. He is no longer alive, and it is questionable whether he achieved what he wanted to accomplish in the end. But the movie is powerful regardless, as it manages to capture the essence of justice, and those who fought for it ― when it was much more difficult to do than it is now.

By Claire Lee (