I was probably drunk when I thought of the post title, but hey, I tried. Anyway, since I was craving for some Jang Hyuk on my screen post-Beautiful Mind but wasn’t ready to jump headlong into any of his long-ass sageuks, two-hour films seemed like the perfect antidote. Spoilers after the jump.
I. Empire of Lust
This is a C-grade erotica sageuk masquerading as something more literary and at the same time a stunning waste of the acting talents of its key actors. Basically, Shin Ha-kyun stars as General Kim Min-jae (snerk), who is a key figure in the army of King Taejo of Joseon and also happens to be the son-in-law of Jung Do-jeon. The good general is ordered to keep an eye on Taejo’s fifth son, the ambitious Yi Bang-won (Jang Hyuk), but inwardly unwilling to keep being his father-in-law’s puppet, General Kim finds solace (literally) with the beautiful Kahee (Kang Han-na). This stirs the ire and jealousy of the general’s son Jin (Kang Ha-neul).
It makes zero sense for me, when you have a historical figure so complex and fascinating as Yi Bang-won, to relegate him to second billing and thrust into the spotlight a dull as beans fictional character who adds nothing to the story. Yet this was the case in Empire of Lust, and I’m not sure what the director and scriptwriter were smoking when they decided this was a good idea for a film. On all fronts, Kim Min-jae posed zero threat to Yi Bang-won and had so little to do despite being the lead that it was truly puzzling just why anyone thought he needed to be gotten rid of – given his entanglement with Kahee, he would have ruined himself eventually. It might have been more interesting had Kahee managed to seduce him into helping Yi Bang-won gain the throne, but the misguided emphasis on “emotions” – which was just an excuse for a number of sex scenes – meant the film fell horribly flat in its key beats. Yi Bang-won did very little strategising aside from one overly brutal scene that was wholly unnecessary; the core love story was cliché and blah; and the interesting nugget that Jin was not Kim Min-jae’s real son was just a throwaway line instead of a launchpad into some complex family issues that could adversely affect the state of affairs in Joseon.
Acting-wise, everyone was pretty decent but ultimately let down by the poor material. Shin Ha-kyun was fine as the righteous general but I couldn’t buy his attraction to Kahee (c’mon, she reminded him of his mother, is the film trying to tell me something?) and his inner conflict didn’t come across well because there just wasn’t much of one. Jang Hyuk was mercurial, Machiavellian and sinister as Yi Bang-won, but was sadly underutilised. Kang Ha-neul put in an appropriately disturbing performance as the unhinged and depraved Jin, while Kang Han-na did well as Kahee, minus that last bit where she was just a pathetic sobbing mess, a mockery of her earlier steely determination to do whatever it took to bring Jin down. Characterisation was pretty one-note and by the end of it, you just feel sorry for the entire cast for having the misfortune of this film blighting their résumés.
II. The Client
The stellar cast made this difficult to resist, and I’m generally very partial to lawyers looking like Ha Jung-woo, so I did my best to avoid spoilers (to no avail). Jang Hyuk is Han Chul-min, who returns home on the night of his wedding anniversary to find himself arrested for the murder of his wife. There is no body and all the evidence is circumstantial. Kang Sung-hee (Ha Jung-woo) is the lawyer who eventually takes up Chul-min’s case and faces a worthy adversary in prosecutor Ahn Min-ho (Park Hee-soon), with whom he shares a rivalry.
It’s always interesting to observe how legal practices differ (or maybe not by much) the world over, especially since South Korea is a civil law system while much of the English-speaking world follows the common law tradition. I have to admit to doing a double take and then a spot of research after because the trial we got in the film was markedly similar to the common law version, right down to the cross-examination and the vibes the entire process gave off. From what I understand, there are specific criminal procedures at the trial stage in South Korea that do not quite mesh with what was depicted in the film. Also, imagine my surprise when the subtitles mentioned Sung-hee saying he might request a discovery of documents – this is very much a common law concept – and at times like this, I wish the subbing team had utilised a less domesticating translation strategy (there was another line about “pleading the Fifth”, which I’m pretty sure does not refer to Article 5 of the South Korean constitution).
What does stand out is the role of the public prosecutor, who wields great power in the South Korean legal system and also directly or indirectly conducts criminal investigations. This blurs the division of duties and jurisdiction between the police and prosecution, but ironically also reinforces the hierarchy already inherent in the structure, making the clash of wills much more intriguing. That power is also subject to abuse, and the film teases that possibility when Minho sets a little trap for Sung-hee and also enlists the assistance of an ex-cop for a bit of below-the-belt surveillance, but sadly doesn’t go further in giving Min-ho’s character a little more complexity.
For a film titled The Client, I felt I knew more about the two lawyers than the client in question – while this is not unusual since the story is told mostly from Sung-hee’s perspective and the audience, like the jury, is largely guided by what he sees, feels and thinks, it is a missed opportunity to go deeper into Chul-min’s personality than what has been painted by others. I didn’t really like the film turning him into the labels people pinned on him, there was very little from him about his relationship with his wife, and there wasn’t any logical explanation for why he twice returned to the scene(s) of the crime and allowed himself to be hauled in for investigation. It also seemed a little too neat that Sung-hee was ultimately the one to trap him into confessing the murder, although I suppose the film had already given a hint by having Sung-hee mention the possibility of double jeopardy early on.
The film raises any number of questions on the investigative and judicial processes, but doesn’t always answer them satisfactorily. For example, there was no payoff whatsoever with regard to the issue of the ex-cop who told Chul-min’s wife that her husband was a murderer, part of a chain of events that led to her death – it was an issue during the trial only because the ex-cop had worked with Min-ho and would have had his go-ahead in getting the wife involved, but beyond the obvious consequence, there was no debate on the legality and morality of such an action and how it would affect the prosecution as a whole. The conflict of interest regarding Min-ho’s motives was mostly left undiscussed except for a stern lecture from the judge over the entrapment issue. I would also have liked more meat into why Min-ho and his father don’t see eye to eye, and it really shouldn’t have boiled down to his rivalry with Sung-hee.
The set-up pointed to an acquittal leading to the final twist, and I wasn’t really surprised that turned out to be the case. The film utilised the popular misconception that circumstantial evidence has less probative value than direct evidence, stuck in a jury trial, and gave Min-ho slightly shady motives such as his desire to convict Chul-min at all costs. In South Korea, the jury trial is a relatively new-fangled thing, having been introduced only in 2008, and is rather modified from the common law version – jurors are allowed to receive opinions from the presiding judge, and the verdict reached by the jurors is non-binding. In the film, the jury trial was mostly a time-delaying tactic and for dramatic purposes – something that blights a lot of legal dramas and films because where’s the excitement in a trial if counsel can’t make submissions with some dramatic flair and in front of an audience? (Obviously, lawyers don’t talk to the gallery.) What I did appreciate was how the film refreshed the appeal to emotions by having Sung-hee cross-examine his own witness (with leading questions to boot!) in a bid to prevent Min-ho from grilling Chul-min on the stand. It’s a risky tactic because it can backfire no matter how well a lawyer coaches his witness, so one is left wondering how much of this well-rehearsed act was due to coaching, or some remnant of genuine emotion in Chul-min, or something entirely perverse in the man. One of the best scenes in the film, it was a brilliant piece of acting by Jang Hyuk, enough to tilt whatever lingering doubt about his guilt in his favour. At that moment, I wanted him to be innocent even though I kind of knew he wasn’t. It was that powerful a scene, enough to make me wish the film had been bolder and darker with Chul-min’s character.
I enjoyed the acting from all the three leads, which was excellent and really engaging. Ha Jung-woo could turn black into white and I’d believe it, such was the assuredness of his portrayal. If he ever wanted a career change, I’m sure the legal profession would welcome him with open arms. I hadn’t seen Park Hee-soon in anything previously but thought he made a solid impression, and enjoyed his scenes with Ha – they were great to watch as they sparred legally, and it’s a pity they didn’t meet much outside of the courtroom, but of course that would not have been in keeping with the story. Jang Hyuk was really convincing as the seemingly downtrodden man who just wanted his wife to still be alive, and was suitably sinister once his true colours were exposed. A nuanced performance that culminated in an intriguing display on the stand, he gave the character some much needed complexity and greys. Pacing was good and the writing was generally decent, though not without loopholes and head-scratchers. Overall, a very watchable film for the three leads, but the story could have done with some sharpening, and less American courtroom-style dramatics.