An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless.
Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery.
Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony.
Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife.
Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him.
There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless.
International trailer (English subtitles)