“Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a lawyer.”
That’s not how this frenetic and bombastic South Korean legal melodrama begins, but it may as well – such is the debt that director Han Jae-rim owes to Martin Scorsese. Not so much a rise-and-fall story as a corruption-and-redemption arc, The King takes elements from Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and – to pull a non-Marty out of the hat – just plain Wall Street and puts them through a specifically Korean cultural lens. The result is not perfect, but it’s also never unengaging.
Park Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is a thug-in-training, son to a small time crook and a feared brawler who seems well on his way to a splendid career in skulduggery when the sight of his father blubbering at the feet of a state prosecutor makes him realise where the real power lies. Throwing himself into study, he aces his exams and passes the bar, only to find that his dream job is mostly paperwork and drudgery. All that changes when he comes into the orbit of superstar chief prosecutor, Han Kang Sik (Jung Woo-sung), who runs his team of lawyers like a crew of made men, selecting what cases to action and when, and protecting the powerful in return for wealth and position. It doesn’t take our man long to succumb to temptation, but he soon finds that this world of labyrinthine politics and backstabbing is like a bad day in Byzantium.
You’ve seen this sort of thing before, but even so you’ve not seen anything quite like The King. Tracking Park’s progress from the mid ’80s to the present day, it takes us through a tumultuous period in Korean history, as the country struggled to embrace modern democracy and elbow its way onto the world stage. While the broad thematic and narrative strokes are familiar – Park develops a partnership with an old criminal buddy (Ryu Jun-yeol) for those times he needs dirty deeds done, he struggles to balance his own ethics with the demands of his corrupt milieu, etc and so forth – the specific details are fascinating. Korea’s legal system is based on the inquisitorial model, and the idea of rock star prosecutors playing the media to ensure they get big headlines for resolving high profile cases is a fascinating one. We also get a sobering look at Korea’s insanely competitive education system, seeing Park spend years living in a kind of squalid student boot camp to study for his exams – never has the ATAR looked so appealing.
The King falters when it tries to handle material and concepts a little too heavy for the director’s flashy, glib visual style. At one point Park is pressured into helping a rapist walk free, and the emotional weight of his choice never quite hits home, with Han focusing his efforts on visual elan rather than actual drama. It feels like the story is frequently in service to technique, rather than the other way around, and though Han is a dab hand at bold camera moves and imaginative scene transitions, often he’s more concerned with these flourishes than actually working to communicate his actual themes and concerns. You also get the feeling that, as non-Korean viewers, we’re missing out on a lot of cultural references and jibes – that’s the price you pay for not being down with the last 30 years of Korean domestic politics. Still, this is a slick, snarky, breathless ride through hidden corridors of power, and that’s always fun, even when the exact thesis remains murky.