Korean Movie Review #1: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)

A Good Lawyer's Wife Cast( Source )

A Good Lawyer’s Wife defies easy description.

Heavily marketed on the basis of its explicit sexual content, and with probably no longer than 10 minutes between one sex scene and the next, on the surface it is simply pornography masquerading as art-house cinema. Or so I thought when I first saw it at the cinema in August 2003, my – let’s be honest – appreciation of Moon So-ri’s (문소리) nude body tempered by the knowledge that the object of her affections was Bong Tae-gyu (봉태규), then regularly appearing in numerous childish and annoying television commercials. Hardly lacking for access to pornography, I saw no reason to watch it again in the next 6 years.

But the movie was my first introduction to Hwang Jung-min (황정민), whom after seeing his transformation into a bumbling, possibly slightly mentally-handicapped idiot in You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명; 2005) a little later, instantly became one of my favorite actors. And then seeing So-ri’s brief but stellar performance in Peppermint Candy (박하사탕; 2000) last week too, I thought I’d give it another chance. After all, my tastes are a little more mature and more discerning now, and far from being put off by depictions of relationships between 30-something women and (often) childish younger men, if all goes to plan I’ll be formally writing a dissertation on precisely that by next March.

Watching it (again) myself over several nights originally then, I was very surprised at how much I liked it this time, and how much of the plot I’d either overlooked or simply gotten completely wrong 6 years ago. Struggling to determine why my opinion had changed so dramatically on a second viewing, I decided to watch it with my wife to see if she liked it also, and more importantly why. Unfortunately, she too thought it was largely pornography masquerading as art-house cinema(!), but she did at least confirm what I’d relearned about the plot. And watching her reactions out of the corner of my eye while ironing shirts (as one does when seeing a highly pornographic movie for the third time), finally it came to me.

A Good Lawyer's Wife Movie Poster

The first thing of note is that its English title is an extremely poor choice. Although it’s true that So-ri’s sexual frustrations with lawyer-husband Jung-min are the catalyst for her having an affair with her teenage neighbor (not actually consummated until close to the end, but – rather than maintaining the suspense – the DVD introduction helpfully shows that scene!), she is by no means a “society wife” smiling inanely at his shoulder at numerous dinner parties and so forth; in fact, she literally has no involvement in his working life and relationships whatsoever. There’s no evidence to suggest that she “gave up her dancing career in order to be a good lawyer’s wife” either, despite what the appalling Wikipedia article on the movie suggests, and one suspects that – like many English-speaking viewers – the writer was misled by the title.

Instead, a much better translation of “바람난 가족” would have been “A Family Having Affairs,” and accordingly it is quickly revealed in the first few minutes that with the exception of Jung-min’s dying father (competently played by Kim In-moon {김인문}) all main adult characters are or will have illicit sexual relationships: Jung-min a long-standing one with Baek Jeong-rim (백정림), a very complex character difficult to get to grips with in just one sitting; his mother Yoon Yeo-jeong (윤여정) with a minor character; and of course So-ri with Tae-gyu. And therein lies the source(s) of the continual sex scenes, which apparently attracted Korean viewers in droves (it was #1 at the box office).

But what, amongst all the sex, were the other points of this movie? What, indeed, was its “moral,” which – as I stressed in my last review – I believe a movie has to have in order to be worthwhile?

Well, without wanting to give any of the plot away, by virtue of all the affairs this is clearly a family with problems (even an adopted son is aware that Jung-min is lying when he says he’s working late). Jung-min’s reasons for his are unfortunately never elaborated, but his mother’s are: like Moon So-ri, she was sexually frustrated.

And how, in a marriage, might one become so?

A Good Lawyer's Wife 2003

Well, while I’m not naive or intellectually shallow enough to attribute all married couples’ sexual problems to a lack of communication, nor arguing that communicating with one’s spouse (or partner for that matter) automatically solves them, I would wager that – if you’ll forgive the pun – a lack of communication is at the root of the vast majority of them. But whereas So-ri may not have been able to resolve her own sexual frustration with Jung-min given that he was already secretly having an affair, tellingly she doesn’t even try. Instead, as one would expect from a fucked-up family, she seems to have her heart set on fucking Tae-gyu literally the morning after Jung-min fails to satisfy her (the poster on the right is rather misleading).

Granted, to a large extent I’d simply be projecting in seeing meaning in that. After all, after 9 years together as a couple (5 married), my wife and I have naturally had our own sexual issues, especially after the birth of 2 children, but – with the knowledge that not doing so would have grave consequences for our marriage – all happily resolved by simply discussing things. Hence, despite all the attention on them, I do personally see all the affairs and the sex in the movie as natural consequences of and/or metaphors  for something deeper. As I think was the deliberate intention of director Im Sang-soo (임상수).

For instance, as Darcy Paquet in his excellent review at Koreanfilm.org points out, this is not the first time he has presented frank sexuality and nonconformist heroes in his movies. And in particular, bear in mind that with: the longest working hours in the world (albeit many of which are not actually spent working); the lowest women’s workforce participation rate in the OECD; and prostitution accounting for 4.1% of GDP also, then as this Japanese author (and personal experience) suggests, there are a lot of virtually sexless marriages in this part of the world.

Ergo, there may be more to the popularity of this movie than mere voyeurism, particularly as it was the enthusiastic response to finally having such frustrations articulated in popular culture in the mid-1990s that is what made movies like this possible in the first place.

True, I’ve yet to look for confirmation from Korean-language sources of that (watch this space). But as a response to potential accusations of overanalysis and projection then, let me offer this challenge: at the behest of their relatives and descendants, Jung-min’s main legal case in the movie – presented in the very first scene in fact – involves the unearthing of victims of an atrocity, which presumably took place during the Korean War or just before. There are also references to Jung-min’s own extended family being separated by the Korean War. While I have yet to come across any reviewer that interprets the former as any more than merely establishing his character as a lawyer though, and hence easily interchangeable with any other legal case, what purpose could both serve other than as metaphors for the broken family at the heart of this movie?

Likewise, gratuitous sex  is not what this movie is all about. And so compelling are all main characters’ stories, that despite yourself you may be wishing that one or two sex scenes had been removed in favor of further character development by the end of the movie. Indeed, the only criticism of the movie I have personally is that even after 3 viewings, Jung-min’s motivations for his affairs remain a frustrating enigma.

Baek Jeong-rim Hwang Jung-min

Next week, if I can find it: My Wife is a Gangster (조폭 마느라; 2001) Samaritan Girl (사마리아; 2004).

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14 thoughts on “Korean Movie Review #1: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Korean Movie Review #2: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) « The Grand Narrative -- Topsy.com

  2. I haven’t seen this movie. Some friends made some informal surveys amongst their married friends and found that between 40% and 50% were having an affair (one of these anecdotal survey is amongst French husbands and the second amongst Korean wifes). I know several Korean wives happily cheating on their husbands. I think all this is completely… normal and doesn’t need to mean something in all cases. Sexual appetite or fantasies are not necessarily related to communication, otherwise friends wouldn’t be friends and, conversely, miscommunication does not necessarily lead to lack of sexual interest. Perhaps monogamy is unusual and needs high maintenance?

    I like your reviews, I will keep them in mind when choosing a Korean movie.

    • Thanks for the compliment, but however normal it may be for your friends to have frequent affairs (or not: like you say, they were informal surveys), and without making any judgments on them, I don’t think it’s at all normal for French husbands, Korean wives, or indeed any other population.

      Sure, “sexual appetite or fantasies are not necessarily related to communication,” but then I never actually said that they were. Moreover, while everyone has the latter, having them is NOT the same as meaning that they want to act on them, nor that doing so has to be with someone other than your spouse or long-term partner. And as for the former, how else can one resolve differences in sex drive without talking to them?

      Sorry, I don’t understand your point about friends. Regardless, I disagree that “miscommunication does not necessarily lead to a lack of sexual interest”: it certainly does if you mean sexual interest in the same partner!

      Given what you’ve written, I suspect that we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree about how normal monogamy is!^^ And I’m aware, for instance, that there is a strong relationship in the animal kingdom between male’s testes size and the form of relationships they have with females (bigger means more mating with more partners), and accordingly human’s are appropriate for monogamous relationships with the odd dalliance now and then…rather like real life (will try to find a link later sorry). But relationship types are not physiologically set in stone: just because it’s “natural” considering our testes size doesn’t mean that we should have affairs. And far from being unusual, monogamy has in fact overwhelmingly the preferred form of male-female relationship throughout human history.

    • Sorry, -very- late response.

      Whether monogamy is normal or not is a terrible justification for cheating. Cheating is never justified.

      The word cheating implies deceit. It is a betrayal.

      If people do not agree with, believe in, or want monogamy is completely their own choice. Don’t get into a monogamous relationship if it is not your thing. Be in an open relationship, or have casual relationships. It isn’t cheating if both partners agree to it, and have communication. Since monogamy does not work for everyone there are many people who are looking for non-monogamous relationships. I’m sure this idea is much more open now than it was 4 years ago with the original comment.

      • No need whatsoever to apologize about anything. And I completely agree that everyone should have complete freedom of choice in the kind of relationships they have, just so long as they’re clear about what they want from the get-go with their partner(s).

  3. Interesting, this movie was shown here on TV recently. And yes, Moon So Ri sans clothing is always good. But there are also some interesting ideas in the movie. Like the chain of events that leads to the kid being thrown off the building (causes of alcoholism, feelings of powerlessness, making sure incidents are “hushed up”, the pressure on men to be the bread winner and so on).

    I find it strange that Korean movies often explore grown up, sensible themes and have violence, but Korean TV dramas seem very nerfed in comparison. IRIS, showing now, at least has guns and explosions, but the women show only minimal skin, despite the male leads frequently misplacing their shirts. The “bedroom” scene in ep 3 was, in comparison to Australia, extremely tame, maybe a PG if any rating here, but it was supposedly cut because it was “too hot for TV”, at least in South Korea. I guess that it is the conservative Confucian values that are applied to TV? I know that TV and movies often have only a vague if any relationship to reality, but Korean dramas seem particularly un realistic (I’ve never been to Korea, so this is just an impression/view formed). Very few controversial themes or anything with any action or even kissing (OMG!) or holding hands(!)… Why do you think this is so? Or do we not get to see the ‘late night’ shows?

    • “Here” would be Australia, right? Does that mean it was on SBS? Or did it make it to one of the more mainstream channels? Just curious.

      And good point about the other interesting ideas in the movie you mention: they deserve more attention than what I give.

      I also find the differences between Korean movies and dramas strange, but unfortunately for that reason have watched very few of the latter, and so can’t really offer more than those parts of Koichi Iwabuchi’s book Recentering Globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism I quote in this post, in which he argues that East Asians tend to like their dramas rather, well, simple and dramatic.

      Not to criticize you or anything(!), but personally I’d have been a bit more circumspect in describing Korean movies as often exploring grown up, sensible themes, and having violence. That they do, but there appear to be definite limits. For instance, as I recall from reading about what others have written about Samaria, the 2004 movie about teenage prostitution (I’ve given up trying to find My Wife is a Gangster), Koreans generally dislike movies that explore unpalatable social problems. But given recent movies like Bandhobi and Breathless, this may be changing.

      But before I forget, while I haven’t had time to explore the subject since first writing about it, I still strongly suspect that the internal dynamics of and corporatist interests within the Korean television industry are what is primarily responsible for most of the inane, often contradictory, and always completely arbitrary censorship on Korean screens. And if so, then presumably these operate differently for Korean cinema.

      No late night shows sorry…but it’s difficult not to find skin on Korean cable between 12 and 6am!

      • James, you can find My Wife is a Gangster here…http://aznv.tv/?p=m110

        Good site for streaming Asian movies in general. I would check there. Sometimes you have to pay for streaming but it’s like 5 bucks for so many hours. Whether you pay them or not I guess depends on how available other movies are outside of torrents.

        I really liked the Good Lawyers Wife….sex, good twists and every school boy’s fantasy. What’s not to like?

        • Indeed, what’s not to like? I have to admit, that while I say that perhaps 2 sex scenes should have been done away with in favor of more character development of Hwang Jung-min, any more and my liking of the movie might seriously have taken a nose-dive!

          Thanks for the link; I’ll try Chris’s first, but I’ll certainly bear that site in mind for the future.

  4. Yep, here is Orstooraria. Yes, on trusty SBS, no way it was on another channel. SBS is pretty much the only free to air channel which will screen non English language movies or series. Don’t have cable, there are some world movie channels on paytv.

    Yeah, for that reason I haven’t watched many Korean series either, they are just too silly, fluffy and generic. I can’t stand it when the characters act like stupid brain dead morons, and when the script writing is abysmal, like they got it via a generic script generator. It is a pity that they aren’t more realistic, but perhaps that will happen in time… or not.

    Ok, I don’t pay much attention to what Korean movies are out there, but there are at least some with action, intelligent themes and such, and there are seemingly more of them, proportionally, than dramas. Just my guesstimate. And the “limits” of what can be done in movies seems light years away from what can be done on TV, for whatever strange reason. I reread your previous post on the subject, and that seems entirely plausible. So you think Koreans generally don’t want to watch more ‘realistic’ shows, not that it is a matter of there being few made? The seeming trend worldwide of people not wanting to know about the world around them or not watching anything ‘serious’ (and watching complete garbage instead) is a concern to me.

    My Wife is a Gangster via BT

    http://www.mininova.org/tor/85057

    http://www.mininova.org/tor/1261771

    • Thanks for those links: being so old and obscure (the movie that is), I assumed that the movie wouldn’t be available on mininova. Downloading it as I type this then!

      Sorry I can’t add to much to your comment though: I could throw you many links about why the general quality of Korean dramas is so abysmal (not a taste thing: I mean production and plots written at the last moment and so on), but I think I’d be preaching to the converted! And there’s limits to how much I can say about them really, not having watched them much and all.

      Finally, yeah, of course there are Korean movies with intelligent themes and such out there (Exhibit A right here after all): I was just too sloppy writing late at night and on 5 hours sleep. But from what I can gather, the general distaste for realistic dramas and movies in this part of the world is really quite separate and more long-lasting then the shallow, reality-TV show phase that the Western world is currently in.

      • No problem, you can find just about anything on the net, somewhere!

        I have read that Korean series are normally shot on the fly just a few weeks before they are aired, which doesn’t leave much time for editing, reshooting or rewriting. It seems like an extremely rushed process, which I doubt helps with quality. But as you say, there must be deeper cultural factors at play for the general blandness.

        I just hope that the slide towards vapid entertainment in the west is only a phase…

  5. May I suggest Garoojigi and The Host

    One of my students told me Garoojigi was voted worst movie of the year. It was the single most interesting portrayal of traditional Korean culture/art I’ve seen. It left me worried I was missing out on Korean culture, wondering how to seek out Korean art. The Hanbok is beautiful. There is folk dance and song that reminded me of Tibet. It is, of course, also full of naked Korean women, sex, sex jokes, etc. I think the Korea government should ditch their entire tourism campaign and just promote this movie abroad.

    The Host is one of the best east Asian films I’ve seen. Excellent cinematography, witty humor, character development, portrayal of modern Korean culture – delving into Korea’s relationship with America but also being self-critical. It’s a bit like a Bollywood film (minus musical numbers) in that it is made for everyone. I saw it twice in the theater in America before I ever stepped foot in Korea. I watched it again last week and I see so much more in this film now.

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I think I might skip the Host though, as opening with such a blatantly anti-American scene as it does would almost definitely sour me for the remainder of the movie I’m afraid!

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