As reported two weeks ago, Filmbrain was looking forward to seeing the winner of the 2004 Deauville Asian Film Festival, A Good Lawyer's Wife. Well, he has, and he was completely and utterly destroyed by it. There were no indicators that the film would reduce him to a pile of jelly. Nevertheless, it did.
It's been said that writer/director Im Sang-soo created the story as direct attack on the Korean patriarchal system, yet the film's brilliance can be gleaned even without much understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary Korean family. The men of the family are unable to express their emotions, and as a result, the women in their lives pay the price. Though there are definitely cultural subtleties missed, the predominant themes are universal. This is a domestic drama, yet with its lack of sentimentality, refusal to moralize, and painful honesty, the result is something very unique.
The opening scene of the lawyer ("Good" due to his genuine concern for his clients) moving the carcass of a large dead dog blocking the motorway works not only as metaphor, but also nicely establishes the tone of the film. (That he lies to his wife about it is interesting in itself.) Without providing any details, we quickly see through the veneer of the perfect job, the beautiful wife (and adopted son) and luxurious home. The marriage is a shambles, but no time is spent on explaining why. We are thrust into their lives and can only guess as to what led them to this point.
The film's greatest strength lies in the outstanding performances by the entire cast, but special attention must be paid to Moon So-ri as the wife - this is one for the ages. Filmbrain cannot think of a performance in recent years that comes even close to the range of emotion and expression that is exhibited here. An incredibly demanding role that leaves you breathless. As the neglected wife, she walks around the house in camisole and panties, exuding unreleased sexual energy. When she masturbates (after her husband is unable to perform) there's a naturalness to it….a complete lack of self-consciousness that one rarely finds in an actress. It's a hard scene to watch - as if we shouldn't be watching it.
With her husband either at work or with his mistress, the wife is left to take care of the domestic issues - the son who is coping with learning of his adoption, and her father-in-law, who is dying. It's of little wonder then that she begins a relationship with a teenage neighbor. In a lesser director's hands, a plot developing in this way could easily turn into melodrama hell, but Im's handling of the increasingly sensitive subject nature is both skillful and precise. At one moment, the film is incredibly erotic, and the next you're all but shielding your eyes. There's no comfort while watching the film - this is not a "sit back and watch the dissolution of a marriage film" - Im is not about to let up just because things get rough.
Then of course there is the scene that moved Filmbrain to tears. Near hysteria would be more accurate. Filmbrain cannot think of another time where he actually had to shut off a film. Cringing, looking away, and covering eyes - this has happened. But not this. Only by shutting it off could he regain composure. Had he been too caught up in the story? Was there some resonance with his own life? Had Im gone too far? Regardless, it was a cathartic experience. After some minutes, and a shot of whiskey, he was able to restart the film. (Of course, the scene that followed caused nearly the same reaction.) When the film finally ended, Filmbrain was exhausted. Sleep was all he could muster.
There's a ton of subtext in the film that Filmbrain hasn't even begun to tackle. Issues of motherhood and sexuality, of what adoption means in Korean society, of the importance of blood-ties, the effects of the Korean War, etc. However, for the moment, it's all about Moon So-ri's performance, which simply has to be seen to be believed. Filmbrain doubts he will see a more powerful film this year, and for the time being is at the top of his 2004 list. See this. [The film can be ordered online from DVD Asian. Though the disc claims to be Region 3 only, it actually works on a Region 1 player.]