Law in Popular Culture

South Korean box-office hit chronicles astonishing success of self-trained but ambitious attorney


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The film inspired by the life of Roh Moo-hyun, who was later elected president of South Korea. 360b / Shutterstock.com

A low-budget film that tells the fictionalized story of the astonishing success of a real-life attorney has quickly become a box-office smash in South Korea.

And it’s not a bad movie, as it tells a melodramatic but compelling tale based on the life of the late human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun, who was eventually elected president of South Korea, the Associated Press reports.

Protagonist Song Woo-seok is a tax attorney who is snubbed by the elite because he passed the country’s bar exam without attending law school, or even earning a college degree. He once skipped out on the tab at a family-owned restaurant where he ate his meals for years, because he lacked funds to pay the bill. But Song more than makes up for the deficiency later, as he represents the owners’ son in a life-changing case, according to the AP and the Hollywood Reporter.

Falsely charged by the state with espionage, tortured and tried, along with nearly two dozen other university students in Busan in 1981, the son faces an almost-certain guilty verdict after he and the other defendants are accused of organizing a book club to study seditious literature. But what was supposed to be a show trial turns into an actual trial, to the amazement of the participants and observers, as Song brings to light information that had been withheld on the grounds of “national security.”

The Attorney paints a sympathetic portrait of the young idealistic Roh, willing to sacrifice his career to fight for justice,” writes a reviewer for The Economist (sub. req.). “Remembering the Busan case, Roh himself said that when he saw the students’ ‘horrified eyes and their missing toenails,’ his ‘comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end.’”

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