[Review] The verdict is in: ‘Juror 8’ (2019) is a favorably atypical procedural drama

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Years of bad television can make anyone cynical towards procedural dramas. But, as we all know and, sometimes, begrudgingly accept, even the most bled-dry concepts can seem fresh. So long as they’re differently approached, of course. On paper, Juror 8 sounds like it could be a stagy courthouse drama. You know the kind—the judge vigorously pounds a gavel to restore order, and a disillusioned lawyer hopes to regain their confidence through winning one particular case. Hong Seung-wan‘s movie does none of that, though. As far as being governed by tropes and giving in to viewer assumptions, Juror 8 is practically lawless.

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Juror 8 is loosely based on the first trial by jury in South Korean history. In 2008, a man from Taegu was accused of assaulting an elderly woman while trying to rob her house. This is where fact and fiction immediately diverge. In the dramatization, the defendant is related to the victim—a woman murdered by her own son. Even though the man (Seo Hyeon-woo) plead guilty before the trial, he’s now changed his tune. Which leads the judge and jury — the real-life case actually had nine jurors — to reexamine the evidence before they all make a decision they’ll surely regret.

This movie is more akin to My Cousin Vinny than A Time to Kill. That’s not to say the film is soused in jokes or slapstick. South Korean cinema has a way of blending multiple moods just as well as anything coming out of Hollywood today. Rather, Juror 8 tempers its various spirits so that we never forget the seriousness of the crime. The way director Hong relieves severe tension with some apropos humor is commendable. Mind you, this not done at the expense of the victim. The laughter is largely directed at the going-ons behind the trial.

Which brings us to the jurors. Clearly, the inspiration for this movie is 12 Angry Men. The number is reduced, but it’s the same formula. The audience will undoubtedly be won over by Park Hyung-shik‘s affable everyman role, whose perseverance is a beacon in a sea of doubt and self-interest. He’s then surrounded by cutouts with just enough characterization to make them palatable. From the girl who sympathizes with the accused for personal reasons, to the white-collar man who blindly follows what those in power tell him to do or think, Juror 8 doesn’t refrain from stock characters. Hints at their circumstances and motivations, however, allow us to be lenient. Even when they are initially undeserving of such a thing.

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The judge (Moon So-ri) comes off as emphatic most of the time. Yet, again, kernels of insightful action ahead of the shocking verdict appeal to anyone’s compassion. Interestingly enough, the lawyers are virtually negligible in the story. It’s the judge whose virtue is on the line. The outcome of the trial has a significant bearing on both her ethics and the future of South Korea’s legal system. The political stance is eventually sidelined in the movie, but its weight on the resolution is undeniable.

Here is a movie that does not entirely shirk routine. If Juror 8 is guilty of anything, it would be that it lays the sentimentality on a bit thick at the end. It’s also not a very accurate account of South Korea’ first jury trial. That being said, there are worse crimes to be accused of than being favorably sappy, or getting creative with the truth. The movie’s appeal for unbiased compassion should be propped up, not condemned.

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