Most of Director Im’s films to date could be classified as ‘woman’s films’ as the protagonists are strong woman who are shown having to navigate the many obstacles placed in their way in order to be independent in what remains a predominantly patriarchal society in which women should know their place and that place should be one of subservience and obedience. While in the West, Director Im is probably best-known for his 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960 Gothic melodrama, The Housemaid (하녀: 1960) which had its UK premiere at the 5th London Korean Film Festival, he is one of South Korea’s most noted directors, both domestically and on the international festival circuit. Never shying away from addressing key social and political issues, Director Im directly addresses female subjectivity, subjugation and sexuality in A Good Lawyer’s Wife (바람난 가족: 2003).
The protagonists of A Good Lawyer’s wife, is Ho-jung (Moon So-ri) , who is, as the title tells us, the wife of a lawyer. Yet the title is deceptive in its English translation, as it is Ho-jung who is good, and not in fact her husband, Joo Young-jak (Hwang Jung-min). Indeed, Young-jak is a largely unsympathetic figure, not only does he have sex with a succession of young woman but he has little time for his clients, viewing the practice of the law as a purely money making venture: a capitalistic attitude which will lead to tragedy. Ho-jung’s search for an identity outside of being a ‘good wife’ takes the form of a sexual journey of discovery. Unable to have an orgasm with Young-jak, she seeks satisfaction elsewhere and finds it in an unconventional relationship with the teenage son, Shin Ji-Woon (Hong Tae-gyu), of her neighbor. At the same time, Young-jak’s mother, Hong Byung-han (Yoon Yeo-jung) is on her own voyage of sexual discovery after her husband succumbs to liver failure as a result of alcoholism.
Like Director Im’s other woman-centred films, A Good Lawyer’s wife is very direct in its representation of female sexuality and female desire. While the search for sexual fulfillment as a metaphor for the search for female emancipation is in some ways a cliche, the powerful central performance by Moon So-ri as torn between patriarchal desires and her own desires, adds authenticity to the journey for self-discovery. While I did enjoy the film, especially when it took a darker turn, I felt that it was still a patriarchal vision/ version of female emancipation in that the sex-scenes said more about male desire than female desire or fulfillment.As such it could be argued that A Good Lawyer’s Wife, despite Director Im’s intentions, is complicit with the dominant ideology of patriarchy which relies on a conventional view of compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries. The fact that A Good Lawyer’s Wife was partly promoted in terms of its explicit scenes of sex, thus reconstructing the female – here Moon-ri -as the object of male desire seems to attest to the difficulty of defining female subjectivity without recourse to sexual cliches.
Having said all this, I would recommend A Good Lawyer’s Wife but more because of the performance of Moon-ri than the overall narrative of the film itself.