Friday, May 4, 2012

Cinema on the Park Review: A Good Lawyer's Wife (바람난 가족) (Im Sang-soo, 2003)

A Good Lawyer’s Wife recently screened as part of the program of Cinema On the Park at the Korean Cultural Office. Following up from the fantastic Paju, it played as part of a series of films covering the theme ‘Dramatic Relationships’. Though I missed the screening, I was lucky enough to catch it on DVD – and it was certainly a unique and technically impressive, if not completely satisfying, experience.

A Good Lawyer’s Wife is written and directed by Im Sang-soo. Sang-soo has just been invited to screen his film, The Taste of Money, at the Cannes Film Festival, having attended previously with his film, The Housemaid. A Good Lawyer’s Wife was his third feature, released in 2003, and was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It did pick up two awards – and these are well deserved – at the Stockholm Film Festival: Best Actress (Moon so-ri) and Best Cinematography (Kim Woo-hyeong).

Ju Yeong-jak (Hwang Jun-min) is a successful lawyer. His wife, Eun Ho-Jeong (Moon So-ri), who apparently gave up a dancing career to be a ‘lawyer’s wife’ (though this is never really clear) and raise their young adopted son, works as a dance instructor in the local gym.

Unable to receive an orgasm, Ho-Jeong is unsatisfied with her husband’s affections and lack of interest, and turns her attention to a young teenage neighbour (Bong Tae-gyu), who she catches spying on her through the window one night. Understandably infatuated, he follows her on his bike and comes along to her dance class, and Ho-Jeong, flattered by his attention and curious as to the possibilities of an affair, teases and seduces the boy. Yeong-Jak is also unsatisfied and is having his own affair – with a younger woman (Baek Jeong-rim), an artist and former model.

That is a summary of the film on the simplest terms, but it is actually quite a difficult film to summarise. Lots of other things happen; including a subplot involving a grave of civilian remains, killed during the Korean War I believe, that were lost on me due to my limited knowledge of Korean culture and history.

There is a lot happening, and while it is all elegantly collaborated together, without a clear direction (and an evident ‘central’ character) it begins to feel like one big mess in the second half. Multiple plot strands are overarching and what is meant to be a tale of a struggling marriage, takes several tangents and becomes more of a tale about a dysfunctional family. It addresses Ju Yeong-jak’s mother, who, having to cope with the pending death of her husband, Chang-geun, from fatal liver failure, bonds with Ho-Jeong when she confesses to be sleeping with another man and reveals the same desire for a sexual awakening.

This arc, along with a situation where Yeong-jak runs a drunken motorcyclist off the road, seem unnecessary and fail to add anything particularly noteworthy, other than to convolute the plot. There are lots of repercussions to this latter event – as Yeong-jak is receiving oral sex from his mistress at the time of the accident and has to cover up her presence in order to keep his affair private. As a result of the victim’s prior misdemeanors his job is threatened, and because Yeong-jak was responsible but won’t admit it, the man seeks a violent revenge.

Firstly, the English title of this film, ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I had a think about it and came to an unsatisfying conclusion that it could refer to the fact that lawyers in Korea (and particularly South Korea) are selfish, dishonest and corrupt, and that she, a righteous and moral woman who loves her son, deserves more attention from her husband. She makes a decision – knowing that her husband won’t care – to fulfill her sexual desires and live the life she wants to lead. We never see Ho-Jeong involved in her husband’s work – and never get the sense that her frustrations stem from leaving behind her dream to be a wife and mother. I guess, looking at the film as a whole, it fails to relay a real purpose. It lacks purpose. Perhaps the title, like the open-ended conclusion, is meant to be somewhat ambiguous. We never do learn the reasons why Yeong-jak is involved in his own affair.

As this is a film about unsatisfied passion, dysfunctional relationships, a series of affairs and a woman’s quest to recapture her sexuality, there is a fair bit of nudity and raunchy sex (like violence, something I have noticed Korean filmmakers don’t shy away from) and the actors do a very good job making these simulated sex scenes realistic. While there are some scenes of undoubted passion; for example the erotic climax (literally), a lot of the sex scenes are void of passion – Yeong-jak and his wife have unsatisfying sex, and she humiliates him further by masturbating the rest of her way to orgasm, even as he lies next to her. Even the sex between Yeong-jak and his mistress seem to be purely out of necessity, not out of love for affection.

A Good Lawyer’s Wife also features some violence and moments of unpleasantness – Bong Tae-gyu’s character badly cuts his hand when he punches a glass mirror at one point, we witness Chang-geun’s suffering of liver failure in graphic detail, and there is another horrifying sequence, which comes about completely unexpectedly, that I won’t divulge.

Is director Im Sang-soo content on simply conveying flawed marriages and delving into the private affairs that people have every day? On this level alone, I question the purpose. He tries to go a bit deeper – exposing the dramatic repercussions of these ‘distractions’ from reality, and introducing subplots, but stuffing the plot with all of this ultimately leaves the character development minimal and the central relationship feeling shallow. The couple doesn’t communicate – keeping their frustrations, for the most, internal. He has a strong vision, and working with DOP Kim Woo-hyung, an inventive visual style. I have no doubt his skills are further perfected in his more recent films.

The most impressive feature about A Good Lawyer’s Wife is the cinematography, and the work here from Woo-hyung (whose work on Paju is extraordinary too) is sensational. It is impossible to ignore – considering the dominance of pinks, reds and blues. Every shot seems to be painstakingly composed and rendered – with a heavy use of red lighting to give skin and light coloured objects a pink hue, while every blue is noticeably accentuated. On some occasions natural light and colour is used, while other times scenes are shot using completely blue/yellow filters. The movement of the camera always suits the scene perfectly and effectively utilises hand-held and POV shots. With the exception of the acting, especially the extremely bold performance from Moon so-ri, and the times when the film throws in horrific surprises, it is only the captivating cinematography that keeps this film interesting.

My Rating: ★★1/2 (C+)

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