"When you're single, you think marriage will guarantee unlimited sex but, when you're married, you quickly realise that it's not like that.
You're not a person anymore... you're really nothing."
- dialogue spoken by Ho-jung, on the phone to one of her single friends.
Joo Young-jak (Hwang Jung-min) is a lawyer who is in an almost loveless marriage with former dancer Ho-jung (Moon So-ri). The two have little in common, aside from their adopted son Soo-in and, even though his father has been diagnosed with terminal liver failure, Young-jak concentrates most of his energy on his extra-marital affair with Yun (Baek Jung-rim). However, when he accidentally hits a drunken motorcyclist (while taking a drive with his mistress), the ensuing consequences threaten to tear his, already unstable, family apart…
The original Korean title (literal translation: A Family Having Affairs) is a much more apt description of proceedings within the film than "A Good Lawyer's Wife"; not only because of the sheer number of extra-marital affairs taking place (and the number of family members involved in the various illicit liaisons) but also because of the sheer importance of those affairs to both the characters and the plot itself. From early on it quickly becomes apparent that sex (or a lack thereof) plays a significant role in each of the main characters' lives - they talk about it regularly, they think about it almost incessantly and use it both for sexual gratification and also as a means of (temporary) escape from other, less enjoyable, aspects of their lives.
Make no mistake, this is a film which doesn't pull any punches, in any respect: The sexual content (and there is a lot of sexual content) is shown in extremely frank and graphic terms, and added to the mix are detailed depictions of terminal illness, death, familial dysfunction and the psychological scars (shown to span generations) that inevitably result from it.
When we first meet Young-jak (Hwang Jung-min), it is in his role as a lawyer - the one part of his life over which he feels he has total control - overseeing the unearthing of human remains of people who went missing during the Korean War, and though he exudes an outward confidence and friendliness, under the surface he is a deeply guarded individual, to the extent that one is never sure if he is deliberately hiding his feelings for (and from) those around him or if he actually has no real feelings for any of them at all. He is, of course, having an extra-marital affair, but it is blatantly clear, even to his mistress, that far from being the no-strings, liberated sex (and human connection) which he believes it to be, it is, in reality, as cold and empty as the rest of his life, and he is so closed off that he could sleep with any number of women and yet still be utterly alone. As the investigating team uncovers the bodies from the Korean War, early in the film, Young-jak stumbles and falls into the pit where the skeletons lie, and the parallels drawn to the fall which his personal life is set to take, are impossible to ignore.
Conversely Young-jak's wife, Ho-jung (Moon So-ri), is under no such self-delusions and is totally aware that her married life is nowhere near the ideal which she hoped it would be - Young-jak rarely touches her and, on the odd occasion when they do have sex, she feels next to nothing (becoming increasingly convinced that she no longer has a G-spot), and so she focuses her attentions on her dancing and providing the best life for her adopted son, Soo-in, as she can. However, the increasing interest of a young student (who follows her on his bike and regularly peers through binoculars at her exercising nude in her apartment) sets her desires ablaze and her awakened libido will clearly not rest until she takes him into her bed, regardless of the consequences.
Director Im Sang-soo also uses the plot to deftly critique the concept of family, and the issues (ranging from responsibility to guilt) that family ties create. Young-jak is more like his father (and, it's implied, his grandfather) than he would ever be prepared to admit and the psychological scars resulting from the things they had to face in their lives (going right back, once again, to the Korean War) have had their part in shaping who he is and even his attitude to his own life.
Even Soo-in (Young-jak and Ho-jung's adopted son) must face growing fears resulting from Ho-jung's decision to burden him with the knowledge of his adoption at such an early age, and thus the vicious circle of family-created issues and scars continues to the next generation.
However, the aforementioned dark aspects of A Good Lawyer's Wife are perfectly balanced with a noticeable playfulness and wit - especially in the early stages of the film - accentuated greatly by a Tom Waits-esque (post Bone Machine) musical score by Kim Hong-jib. In fact, the main musical theme is so beautifully conceived that the same refrain can, at one moment, be light-hearted and fun and, seconds later, take on a claustrophobic oppressiveness as the unfolding drama darkens.
Both Hwang Jung-min and Moon So-ri give superb performances throughout A Good Lawyer's Wife, as would be expected of actors of their calibre. However, even the supporting cast pull out all the stops to create an almost perfect ensemble piece. The visceral nature of some of the proceedings, combined with the extreme sexual content, could easily have appeared fake and "acted" in lesser hands but, thankfully, the portrayals, under the directorial guidance of Im Sang-soo, are utterly natural and nuanced throughout.
On the surface, A Good Lawyer's Wife positively pulsates with explicitness while, at its heart, beats a deeply intelligent critique of family and the scars that familial bonds can create. In short, A Good Lawyer's Wife is an utterly astonishing film.
Actor ... Character:
Hwang Jung-min ... Joo Young-jak
Moon So-ri... Ho-jung
Baek Jung-rim ... Yun
Director: Im Sang-soo
The DVD used for this review is the Korean 2-Disc Special Edition (encoded for both Region 3 and Region 1) which has an anamorphic transfer presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The picture is incredibly clear with relatively good colour balance throughout (although blacks are slightly lacking in depth) and is free of ghosting and image artifacts. The DVD package also comes with an "Image Book" containing the shooting schedule, photographs of the sets and locations, complete with diagrams of camera positions for the majority of shots.
The sound is a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, both of which are crisp and compliment the visuals beautifully.
Excellent subtitles are provided for the main feature but English speaking viewers should be aware that there are no English subtitles available for any of the copious number of DVD extras (see below).
A Good Lawyer's Wife: 2-Disc Special Edition
Subtitles: English, Korean
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: NTSC
Disc Format(s): DVD - 2-Disc Special Edition
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
Region Code: Region 1 and Region 3
Publisher: Myung Films
Commentary #1 – Director, Critic, Cinematographer
Commentary #2 – Moon So-ri, Hwang Jung-min, Bong Tae-gyu
Interviews – 8 short interviews with the cast
Stills Galleries – 3 stills galleries with soundtrack excerpts: the director, the film and behind the scenes
Making of Featurette – 50 minutes duration
Production Notes – one hour duration consisting of interviews with the director, production staff, film crew and the music composer
Deleted Scenes – 12 minutes duration, divided into 4 sections
Baram Baram Baram – cast and crew interview
Sketch of Preview – Q&A session at a screening preview
Cast & Crew – character profiles, biographies and filmographies
*Note: Several of the Production Notes also contain links to various behind-the-scenes clips*
('A Good Lawyer's Wife' screens at the 2015 London Korean Film Festival on 13 November at Regent Street Cinema)