The Client begins with an oddly blank-faced young man clutching a bouquet of flowers, walking slowly through a crowded parking lot into an apartment crawling with police. It’s his anniversary, but his wife’s not there: instead, there’s a blood-soaked mattress and a police officer holding out a pair of handcuffs.
Our young man is Han Cheol-min (played by Jang Hyuk, Volcano High), and he’s not the protagonist of the film — he’s merely the client, the number one suspect in a murder trial rich in circumstantial evidence, with no body and no weapon in sight. The real star of the show is the mildly eccentric and very sharply-dressed Kang Sung-hee (Ha Jung-woo, The Chaser, The Yellow Sea), who sets to work on both the investigatory side of things and the battle of wits in the courtroom. On the other side is prosecutor Ahn Min-ho (Park Hee-soon, A Million, A Barefoot Dream from last year’s KOFFIA), who is ambitious, brilliant and has a bit of history with both the defendant and his opposite number.
For most of its running time, The Client is really a legal procedural rather than a courtroom drama; defence lawyer Kang pokes around crime scenes, sends his investigators out to find evidence, furrows his brow and tries to piece it all together. The prosecution rush the case to court, and the story’s initial pacing reflects it — “who did it? how was it done? we’ve got no time!”, screams the film as Kang’s team hurriedly prepare. Once the trial begins, though, we switch to a more theatrical movie courtroom mode: maverick barristers butting heads, surprise last-minute witnesses, startled whispering in the gallery.
The Client is a slick, entertaining film, with good performances from the two lawyers (I particularly liked Ha, who seemed to be having a great time as Kang) and a surprisingly effective hangdog delivery from Jang Hyuk as the titular client. That’s not to say it’s without its flaws — the first act really clips along, introducing minor characters almost too quickly to follow. There are also a bunch of decidedly loose ends, introduced part-way in and quickly passed over or never referred to again. (It may be that this annoyed the lawyers who watched the film with me more than it would an audience of non-practitioners!) Director Sohn mixes things up a bit, giving us the occasional piece of information as a flashback with no introduction, or even a dream sequence, leaving the audience to puzzle out its significance: fun, but a bit jarring given the procedural style of the rest of the story.
Still, these are fairly minor quibbles. Fans of Hollywood-style legal dramas and of good old-fashioned whodunnits (or howdunnits?) will enjoy this slightly different take on the genre.
The Client is screening at KOFFIA 2012 (late August through September) in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane — see the festival website for full details.