Sat, Mar 01, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Law and disorder

‘The Attorney’ taps into South Korean wave of discontent

By Jung Ha-won  /  AFP, SEOUL

This handout photo taken last November in Seoul shows South Korean actor Song Kang-ho, right, and director Yang Woo-seokk, during a press conference to promote their film The Attorney. The film, which casts a nostalgic eye on a former left-leaning president, has become a box office phenomenon in South Korea, powered by what some see as growing discontent with Seoul’s conservative political landscape.

Photo: AFP

A film casting a nostalgic eye on a former left-leaning president has become a box office phenomenon in South Korea, powered by what some see as growing discontent with Seoul’s conservative political landscape.

As President Park Geun-hye looked back this week on her first year in office, moviegoers have been looking further back to the early 1980s — a period of political upheaval that provides the setting for The Attorney.

The film tells the story of an opportunistic tax attorney who throws away personal ambitions to defend a group of innocent students falsely accused of sedition.

The storyline is taken from actual events and the lead character is clearly based on the late Roh Moo-hyun, who became a human-rights advocate and later South Korea’s president.

Since its Dec.18 release, the film has been seen by more than 11 million people — more than 20 percent of the population.

In just 33 days, it became only the tenth South Korean movie to sell 10 million tickets.

The Attorney features one of South Korea’s best-known actors in the title role, and the storyline of the reformed lawyer representing the underdog against the establishment has a classic populist appeal.

But critics say the film has also successfully tapped into simmering discontent, and nostalgia for a period before the country’s booming economy spawned a more materialist culture.


Roh Moo-hyun left a divided legacy. A liberal firebrand with a common touch, he served as president from 2003 to 2008, before jumping to his death a year later as a corruption probe closed in on his family.

Roh’s approval rating was only 11 percent during his final year in office, but his suicide came as a profound shock.

The rural village where the late president grew up — and which now houses his grave — has always been popular but after the film came out, the number of monthly visitors surged more than 50 percent and topped 93,000 in January.

The background of The Attorney is the 1981 Burim Case in which 22 students and workers were arrested on trumped-up charges.

It was widely seen as an attempt by strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized power in a coup the year before, to discredit the pro-democracy movement.

Roh was one of the defence lawyers at the trial. After signing confessions under torture, 19 of the group were jailed for up to six years.

Roh’s presidency marked the end of a 10-year experiment with liberal leadership — a period best known for the “sunshine” policy with North Korea that produced two historic summits.

He was replaced by the conservative Lee Myung-bak who was in turn followed in 2013 by the incumbent Park Geun-hye.

Park is the daughter of late military strongman Park Chung-hee whose iron-fisted rule through the 1960s and 70s still bitterly divides Koreans.

Although Park has enjoyed high approval ratings since taking office, some see her style as a throwback to an authoritarian past, and there was widespread disquiet over intelligence agency meddling in the 2012 presidential election.

A slowing economy has highlighted disparities thrown up by the boom years, fuelling calls for economic and social reform.

It is in this climate that The Attorney with its crusading, idealistic message has struck a chord.


“A movie like this is usually a hard sell, but the current government laid out a perfect platform for The Attorney to become a smash hit,” said Chin Jung-kwon, a noted liberal commentator.

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