There are few things more satisfying than a well-performed and thoughtfully structured courtroom drama. I for one have pleasantly idled away many a Sunday afternoon whisked away into the heady wood-paneled halls of justice. The beauty of legal dramas or thrillers is that by way of their conceit they are already confined, for the most part, to one location and as viewers we accept this fact. More than most genres, with courtroom films we largely know what we’re getting ourselves into.
So what makes these films so popular when they are so constrained by their design? Their narratives typically do not require the presence of too many characters and often eschew subplots which may otherwise seem contrived. This makes them quite lean and generally pretty easy to follow and be drawn in by. For the most part the stories will be determined by the answer to one question: will the case be won or lost? But the most engaging thing about courtroom dramas is the bitter contest of right vs. wrong. We are compelled to deliberate over the evidence and arguments presented by both sides (though we are often led by the filmmaker’s guiding hand) which in effect means that our viewing experience sees us living vicariously through the jury represented on screen. Some of the genre’s best examples are fully aware of this fact and use it to their advantage, such as the slippery and claustrophobic moralizing of Twelve Angry Men (1956).
Perhaps the most important element of any solid and engaging legal thriller is the strength of its characters and by extension the importance of their casting. Who could ever forget Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982). Though I’m sure not all will agree, but there’s also much to be said for Tom Cruise’s endearing performance in A Few Good Men (1992). In considering the recent Korean courtroom drama The Client, the first thing that pops to mind is the charismatic performance of Ha Jeong-woo, who is surely on his way to becoming one of the peninsula’s leading stars. Though judging by the massive opening of his new film Nameless Gangster this past weekend, he already seems quite close to that distinction.
The premise to The Client is quite simple: a man returns to his apartment early one morning to find it overrun by police investigating a murder, the victim being his wife. As all the evidence, albeit circumstantial, points to him, he his immediately hauled away for questioning. Despite the seeming open-and-shut nature of the case, attorney Kang (Ha Jeong-woo) takes on the defendant Han (Jang Hyeok) as his client. Kang is a gregarious lawyer, confident in his abilities, and he will do battle with his rival prosecutor Ahn (Park Hee-soon) in the court while also dealing with his client, who seems to be holding something back.
The film sets up a classic did he or didn’t he scenario but rather than linger on this question, it lets it eat away at the edges of the frame as it chooses instead to focus its attention on the contentious and grudgingly respectful battle between the tremendous presence of Kang and the imposing steeliness of Ahn. In his second outing, Director Sohn Young-sung adroitly handles the pacing, which is taut and even at 123 minutes never lags. He also exhibits some panache in the mise-en-scene department though modestly holds back as he wisely gives way to the considerable talents of his first-rate cast.
It hardly needed any more confirmation, but The Client should easily qualify Ha Jeong-woo as a major star with the kind of mix of natural charm and good looks that is reminiscent of some of the silver screen’s coolest icons like Paul Newman, or perhaps he’s Korea’s equivalent to Hollywood’s icon-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling. Either way we’ll be in no short supply of his talents for the foreseeable future as he stars in two film released this month, Nameless Gangster and Love Fiction, and then Ryoo Seung-wan’s big budget spy thriller The Berlin File which is about to start shooting on location in Europe.
Park Hee-soon is somewhat of an anomalous presence in the Korean star system. He’s handsome and often cast as the leading man but he might be the most intense actor in the country. He doesn’t display any sense of humor, which adds a rather unsettling but effective tone to his performance as a larger-than life soccer coach in A Barefoot Dream (2010), but it can also be a drag on proceedings that are already bereft of much spirit like last year’s promising but ultimately shallow and turgid The Showdown (2011). However, he does excel at playing saturnine characters and when employed effectively he can be a formidable presence, such as in Hansel in Gretel (2007). Sohn is one of those deft hands who knows how to wield his strengths and as prosecutor Park he is an excellent foil to Ha’s outgoing litigator.
The Client is not without its faults. While more than serviceable, the plot is merely adequate, constantly to-ing and fro-ing with the odd curveball thrown in for good measure. At the end of the day it offers nothing new in the exhausted setting of the legal thriller. Nevertheless, it is a satisfying way to divert oneself during the course of a lazy Sunday.
Following the critical and commercial success of The Client and more recently Unbowed, it’s a safe bet to say that Korea will soon greenlight some more high-profile courtroom dramas and if the quality of this effort is anything to go by, these would be a most welcome addition to the ever-versatile Korean film industry’s production slate.
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