“Are you a good person?” asks the confused girl at the centre of Lee Han’s Innocent Witness (증인, Jeungin). Her question comes after a series of surprising revelations which have left her questioning all of her relationships and the nature of the world itself, yet it’s one that’s largely impossible to answer. Formerly idealistic lawyer Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung) thinks he’s been given the kind of case he can get behind, but as usual nothing is quite as it seems and if he wants to get to the truth of the matter he’ll have to learn to think differently.
Soon-ho began his career as an activist lawyer working for NGOs, but now he’s “sold out” to join an elite law firm with a dodgy reputation in order to pay back debts his father unwisely guaranteed for a friend. Because of his precarious financial status, Soon-ho has put-off marriage and relationships, despite his father’s nagging, believing them to be out of his reach and is conflicted by his recent career choices which leave him on the opposite side from old friends. When he’s handed a pro-bono case to defend a housekeeper (Yum Hye-ran) accused of murdering her employer he thinks it’s the best of both worlds. All the evidence points to suicide, but there’s a witness testimony which suggests otherwise. Seeing as the testimony is from a 15-year-old autistic girl who witnessed the crime from across the street, Soon-ho feels he can easily have it discounted.
Like many in the film, Soon-ho doesn’t know much about autism and writes Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi) off as “mentally impaired”, believing that will be enough for the jury to disregard her testimony especially as it so strongly conflicts with the rest of the evidence. Refused permission to meet with her in person, Soon-ho begins trying to befriend Ji-woo on the way home from school and eventually comes to realise that she is highly intelligent if easily distracted and uneasy in social situations. What he discovers is not that Ji-woo is unable to communicate with the world, but that the world is unwilling to communicate with her. If he wants to bond, he will need to learn her language and earn her trust.
Trust maybe he hard to come by as he witnesses the minor aggressions she goes through every day like the horrible boys at school who taunt her mercilessly and the supposed friend bullying her in secret, not to mention a world full of barking dogs and ringing telephones. When he finally puts her on the stand, his own co-defence chair reads out passages from a book about autism which describe it as a “mental disability” before painting her as a deranged idiot who probably half-imagined what she saw from things she’d seen on television – an act which has profound ethical implications in eroding Ji-woo’s sense of self. Ji-woo told Soon-ho she wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers are good people who help those in need, but Soon-ho has to ask himself whose interest destroying a 15-year-old girl on the stand is really serving.
The law firm Soon-ho joined does seem to be a sleazy one. Despite hiring him to improve their image, Soon-ho’s boss tells him that his new clients won’t be comfortable with him unless he gets himself a little “dirty” while inviting him to awkward parties with call girls in high class hotels. Meanwhile, Soon-ho remains conflicted – especially after potentially losing a 20-year friendship through saying the wrong thing to a still idealistic lawyer and passing it off as an attempt to be “realistic”. Realism is one thing, but Soon-ho seems to have given up and decided if you can’t beat them join them. His dad, sensing his son’s unease, writes him an impassioned letter in which he tells him that the most important thing in life is to be happy with yourself, everything else you can figure out later.
Realising his mistake, Soon-ho begins to see the light. Through bonding with Ji-woo, he learns that seeing things differently can be advantage and that society should have a place for everyone where they shouldn’t have to worry about being themselves. Tellingly, no one ever bothered to ask Ji-woo about the most important part of evidence in her testimony because they all had too many prejudices about her delivery. Only Soon-ho, having bothered to get to know her, was able see what it was that she wan’t saying. The film perhaps missteps when it has Ji-woo come to the conclusion that she can’t be a lawyer because of her autism, but otherwise presents a sensitive portrayal of a society trying to be better in accommodating difference and doing it with empathetic positivity while subtly waving a finger at the self-serving forces of conservative corruption.
International trailer (English subtitles)