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Roh nostalgia shakes up box office

Inspired by late liberal leader, ‘The Attorney’ draws over 10m viewers

A poster of “The Attorney” is displayed in front of the box office of a movie theater in Yongsan, Seoul on Sunday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
A poster of “The Attorney” is displayed in front of the box office of a movie theater in Yongsan, Seoul on Sunday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Choi Yoon-jeong, an office worker in her 20s, has never considered herself someone who is “interested in politics.” The Seoulite, who enjoys keeping up with the latest fashion trends and watching musicals, however, left the theater in tears after watching “The Attorney,” a film based on a national security case in which Roh Moo-hyun, who was later elected president, defends the accused.

“I think I was just really angry at the injustice portrayed in the film,” Choi told The Korea Herald. “I think anyone with the least amount of human compassion would be angry watching this. This isn’t about politics. This is about the common conscience.”

Choi is one of more than 10 million viewers who saw the film, which last weekend became the 10th movie to break this ticket sales milestone in Korea. The directorial debut by webtoon artist Yang Woo-seok, “The Attorney,” which premiered on Dec. 18, is also the first to feature the earlier days of the late president, whose abrupt suicide in 2009 left the nation in shock. Some experts cite the current political situation and Song Kang-ho’s memorable performance as major factors behind its box office success.

Set in the 1980s, the movie stars Song as a Busan-based tax lawyer who ends up defending a group of young students detained by police, accused of being communist sympathizers due to their possession of “politically unsound” literature, and tortured by interrogators under the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan regime.

The court case in the film is based on the actual “Burim case” handled by Roh when he was a lawyer in Busan in the 1980s. Roh reportedly switched specialties from tax law to human rights after defending the students in 1981.

The outspoken lawyer then entered politics ― first as a lawmaker, then as president after beating his heavyweight conservative rival Lee Hoi-chang to win the 2002 election. His political career ended in tragedy when he jumped to his death from a cliff in 2009, about a year after he retired from the nation’s highest office amid an investigation 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 release of the film drew attention as it came after prosecutors announced in November that the National Intelligence Service was illegally involved in the 2012 presidential elections by spreading more than 1.2 million SNS messages in an attempt to sway public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye, who went on to become president. Park also has been receiving criticism over her lack of communication with the public, and the way her administration handled the recent, controversial railway strike by resorting to a police raid.

Film critic Oh Dong-jin said the popularity of the film has to do with the current political situation in the country rather than Roh Moo-hyun.

“I don’t think a film like ‘The Attorney’ would’ve been produced at all if the public was satisfied with the current social and political situations,” film critic Oh Dong-jin told The Korea Herald. “Contemporary films inevitably reflect the collective desire and frustrations of the public. The fact that this film is so popular shows that the public is yearning for a society that embraces common sense. And it is not just ‘The Attorney.’ The recently-released action thriller ‘The Suspect’ is also critical of the governmental authorities and the way they use their power.”

The film triggered many online disputes between the supporters and opponents of Roh even before it was released in theaters. Its producers and director have openly admitted they did not foresee such commercial success, since the film deals with “sensitive” and political themes. But culture critic Lee Moon-won said it is in fact its highly political content that made the marketing of the movie successful.

“Every film is a business; it’s not a charity,” Lee said. “They obviously decided to produce it because they thought it would appeal to the public. Perhaps they didn’t think it would sell 10 million tickets, but I’m sure they did it because they thought the story had its (commercial) merits.”

Lee said the “The Attorney” has a number of flaws cinematically which can also be found in other socially conscious films, such as “The Unbowed” (2011) and “Silenced” (2011). The films are at times overly emotional and often portray complex and layered events as rather simplified struggles between good and evil, the critic said.

Lee said films that deal with sociopolitical issues are often easier to market, as they also appeal to the news industry. “It’s always easier for reporters to attract more readers if they write about a film that has a connection with social or political issues in real life, instead of just writing about a film that’s totally fiction,” Lee said. “It’s easier for writers to produce stories that generate a lot of public talk that way.”

He also noted that Korean filmgoers have been mostly favoring realism over fantasy, adding that science fiction and fantasy films rarely succeed at the box office. “Even during the Joseon Dynasty, a lot of the Korean plays were satires of reality, often dealing with its caste system and other social problems. I think Koreans have their own tradition of fusing their everyday social and political reality into their cultural experiences.”

Meanwhile, Myongji University professor Shin Yul said “The Attorney” is a “political version” of the recently ended popular TV drama series “Answer me 1994.” The TV series, featuring a love triangle among young Koreans, became popular for its portrayal of the pop culture of the ’90s ― such as the legendary K-pop group Seo Taiji and Boys, baggy jeans and pagers.

“When the economy is slow, people tend to like things that are retro,” he said.

“I think that is what is happening in Korea right now. ‘The Attorney’ deals with the ’80s, and the reason why it is popular is similar to why ‘Answer me 1994’ is popular. Both appeal to the public nostalgia of the past. And actor Song Kang-ho also did a great job.”

Shin, however, thinks the movie’s popularity does not necessarily reflect the public dissatisfaction with the current government. “If that were true, one would not be able to explain why President Park’s approval rating is over 50 percent right now,” he said.

By Claire Lee