Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung, Steel Rain
) is a lawyer who, in the early part of his career, established his reputation working for a progressive legal association. After years of defending ordinary citizens against large corporations, he has decided to accept a well-paid job at a leading firm. His new boss admires his talent and skill, but is concerned that Soon-ho’s squeaky-clean image will make his rich corporate clients uncomfortable. “You need to get some dirt on you,” the boss suggests. Meanwhile outside of work, Soon-ho leads a quiet life with his elderly father. The one close friend he has is a former colleague at the legal association who is raising a school-aged daughter. But now that Soon-ho has, in effect, gone over to “the other side,” she no longer feels as comfortable with him, either.
Soon-ho’s first major case at his new job is one that the firm takes on for the sake of its image, rather than a big payoff. A housekeeper has been accused of murdering her employer, but she insists that she was simply unsuccessful in preventing a suicide. It seems like a straightforward case, but with one complication: the incident was witnessed by a school-aged autistic girl (Kim Hyang-gi, Along with the Gods
) who lives in the same neighborhood. The girl, obviously traumatized by what she has seen, has given a statement to the police that supports the murder charge. But she refuses to meet with Soon-ho. Hoping to find some way to discredit her testimony, he starts coming to her school each day at the time she gets off, and walking home with her.
could easily have been a forgettable, or even a very bad film. In recent years a number of Korean movies have depicted autistic characters, but not all of them have handled these depictions with sensitivity. In addition, the setup and overall plot structure of this film looks suspiciously predictable. In the hands of another director, it might have been a chore to sit through.
But over the course of his career, director Lee Han has clearly established himself as a gifted storyteller. Beginning with his breakout hit Punch
(2011), he has specialized in works that are centered around well-drawn, three-dimensional characters while also gently introducing a contemporary social issue, like multiculturalism or (in the case of his well-reviewed low-budget drama Thread of Lies
) teen suicide. His most recent work before Innocent Witness
was the ambitious A Melody to Remember
(winner of the Audience Award at FEFF18), which is based on a true story about a children’s choir formed during the Korean War.
More than anything, Innocent Witness
succeeds because of its memorable, well-drawn characters. Jung Woo-sung’s Soon-ho comes across as much more than simply a lawyer torn between idealism and material success. He has a natural generosity of spirit that, in a very human way, can sometimes cross into overconfidence, leading him to overreach or say the wrong thing. His rival attorney in the case, played by Lee Kyu-hyung, is a charismatic blend of willpower and inexperience. And Kim Hyang-gi is convincing as the autistic Jiwoo, whose idiosyncratic means of expressing emotion masks a determined intelligence within. The end result is a film that is effortlessly comfortable to watch, but becomes steadily more emotional as it reaches its final act. It is suffused with a warmth that is not just added on, but feels earned.