What price justice? Wong Kwok-fai’s legal thriller The Attorney (一级指控) puts an unequal society on trial but discovers that to beat shadiness you might need to get a little shady and a healthy bit of deviousness may serve you well if it’s offered in service of a noble ideal. Then again, it’s a slippery slope towards the abyss if even the proponents of law aren’t above a little judicial finagling to ensure that “justice” gets done in a society which continues to defer to those with the biggest pockets rather than protecting those of meagre means.
We meet our two attorney heroes in the middle of their respective cases. Jaded hot shot Lei You Hui (Alex Fong Chung-sun) is defending a journalist who broke an important story about corruption in the competition for places at prestigious schools from a defamation charge, while the idealist rookie Kelvin (Carlos Chan) is defending a frail old woman held up on a charge of operating without a proper business licence. Lei wins his case, and Kelvin loses. Lei mocks Kelvin’s lack of success, and Kelvin has only contempt for Lei’s cavalier attitude towards the upholding of justice.
The action begins when a 25-year-old man, Lee, is found lying in a pool of blood next to the dead body of a young woman, Ka-yee, who is later discovered to be the daughter of a billionaire businessman, Kwok (Liu Kai-chi). The case seems open and shut. Lee claims he passed out and found the body when he woke up but the circumstantial evidence against him is overwhelming. His grandmother, Chu (Nina Paw Hee-ching), of course believes that he is innocent and enlists the best lawyers she can get access to, leading her to a solicitor who introduces her to Kelvin who is determined to see that the young man gets a fair trial. Lei, meanwhile, has a personal interest in the case in that his late wife was killed in a shopping mall collapse 10 years previously which also took the lives of Lee’s parents. Lei prosecuted a class action law suit, but lost. The shopping mall was constructed by Kwok’s company, which gives him an additional reason to want to help aside from trying to make things up to Lee and Chu whom he feels he failed all those years ago.
Wong wastes no time in demonstrating that “justice” is a nebulous concept when society is necessarily set up to benefit the rich. Ka-yee’s body was discovered in a building belonging to a property magnate, Tsai Chi-wai (Patrick Tam), who is currently running for political office on a platform of equality for all. Chi-wai is, however, a member of the super rich elite who believes he can do as he pleases because he is protected by his wealth and privilege. Lee, by contrast, is a poor boy delinquent who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to a fancy lawyer to clear his name and most likely would have been torn apart by the elite prosecutor those with vested interests have ensured is attached to the case even though it’s a simple enough affair.
Yet, as Lei discovers, the roots of corruption lie in the understandable desire to protect one’s children even when they’ve made terrible mistakes. Meeting with Chi-wai’s smarmy father, he discovers a man who talks up his youthful high ideals of union activities and working for the workers but later emphasises his hard won cynicism in insisting that no one with a brain seriously believes in things like truth and justice, only self interest. Tsai wants to protect his son at all costs, if only to protect himself by getting his boy into high office. Meanwhile, Kwok is left with questions about his own responsibility for his daughter’s death. If having literally billions in the bank can’t keep your little girl alive, then what use are they?
Then again, having billions in the bank is pretty useful leverage for getting your own way even if you eventually have a change of heart about enabling societal corruption. Chi-wai snarls that you need to be smart to survive, but according to Kelvin saving lives is more important than winning. Lei, who had given up his lofty ideals after being unable to get “justice” for his wife’s death begins to regain his faith in the law thanks to Kelvin’s influence and the accidental coincidence of getting a kind of revenge on Kwok by showing him the error of his ways in illuminating the truth behind his daughter’s death. To do that, however, he’ll have to bend the law a little which leaves him a compromised figure if for the best of reasons as he wilfully demonstrates the flaws in a legal system which is in itself inherently corrupt in its avowal that everyone is equal before the law while ignoring the fact that not everyone has access to the same level of “justice”. Wong’s conclusion may be a little rosy as even the most jaded of legal minds finds himself minded to rebel against the system, but there’s no denying his purpose as Lei decides to protect his daughter by protecting his society from the forces which threaten to blacken her future.
The Attorney screens in Chicago on Oct. 10 as the closing night gala of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. Actor Kenneth Tsang Kong, scriptwriter Frances To, and xxecutive producer Cherrie Lau will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles)