In the South Korean drama Divorce Attorney Shin (Netflix), based on the webtoon by Kang Tae-kyung, notes of interpersonal humor highlight Cho Seung-woo’s performance as a crusading lawyer with a handful of personality quirks and some personal drama of his own that inspires him in his cases. He was once a pianist, and a professor of music in Germany. But now, Shin has come home to Seoul, hung out his shingle, and pledged to be the divorce lawyer every underdog requires.
Opening Shot: “It’s not a crime to fall in love. I never wanted to take it this far.” The hammy dialogue we’re hearing isn’t from a case-of-the-week on Divorce Attorney Shin. It emanates from his favorite TV drama as Shin Sung-han (Cho Seung-woo) heats up a microwave dinner. “Where are you going?” he shouts at the characters. ”You have to sue his mistress!”
The Gist: Shin is happy to let eccentricities be his guide. When in need of a little inspiration, he turns to the melodramatic balladry of 1970s Korean trot singer Na Huna. And in divorce mediations with a client, down at Seoul’s central court building, Shin often plays up bemusement and a certain disheveled persona, only to shut down the lawyer and angry spouse across the table from him and his client. “I personally believe that circumstantial evidence can be valid,” Shin says during one of these sessions at the outset of Divorce Attorney Shin. “But since they’re being absurd” – opposing counsel was concocting a defense based in part on numerology – “we’ll hand this case over to the court, and I’ll submit this phone as evidence after digital forensic analysis. Decisive evidence will save both sides so much trouble.” It’s another win for Shin, a talented if slightly odd lawyer who sometimes puts his socks on while sitting on the steps outside the courthouse.
For his latest case, Shin’s going to need all of his wits. The personal life of well-known media personality and radio host Lee Seo-jin (Han Hye-jin) has exploded into public view – her affair, as well as a leaked sex tape. But despite becoming a public pariah, Seo-jin tells Sung-han about the cruelty and emotional abuse inside her marriage to Kang Hee-sub (Park Jung-pyo), and how their third-grader son Hyeon-woo (Jang Seon-yul) is caught in the middle of their squabbling and divorce proceedings.
Despite his cluttered office and its devotion to a vein of analog traditionalism – and deflecting the fawning, starstruck attentions of Shin’s office manager and childhood pal Jang (Kim Sung-kyun) – Seo-jin can sense that Sung-han is trustworthy, sensitive to her situation, and prepared to help her win custody of Hyeon-woo. But like all things in his daily life, Divorce Attorney Shin is going to do it his way.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Divorce Attorney Shin co-stars Kim Sung-kyun and Jung Moon-sun were both a part of the Grey’s Anatomy-style Korean medical drama Hospital Playlist. And Yu Young-a and Lee Jae-hun, who created Shinalso brought the dramas Thirty-Nine and Run On to Netflix.
Our Take: Projecting the out-of-home advertising for Shin Sung-han, divorce attorney, he wouldn’t appear on billboards touting a sledgehammer and guaranteeing big payouts when he wins client cases. If anything, he’d probably be carrying a slide whistle. Shin is an odd duck from the moment we meet him, and Cho Seung-woo emphasizes his character’s baked-in eccentricities with subtle humor and a cheery lack of social graces. “You’re very unusual,” Lee Seo-jin says to Shin Sung-han when they meet about her case for the first time. And Shin gathers himself up. “Thank you.”
We will learn more about Shin’s past as a musician and educator as Divorce Attorney Shin progresses; we’ll also learn about what in his own life led to his career path veering into practicing law. (There are hints in the early going; Shin sips and smells chilled water with the reverence of a sommelier.) And the case that will be central to the season is seeded with the inequities of an overbearing and jealous husband, whose counting of his celebrity wife’s underwear drawer and rampan emotional gaslighting plays out against an affair she entered into and its attendant fallout, which includes the terrible optics of a leaked sex tape.
What’s already clear in Shin is how seriously Sung-han takes divorce litigation, to the point that he’s not interested in practicing any other kind of law. And the quirks of his personality are all part of how he eventually solves cases, which is the kind of hook that should keep us interested, especially when added into the interactions between Sung-han and Seo-jin, which have an endearing oil and water quality. The humor there, as well as in Sung-han’s relationships with his old friends, helps balance the tension on display in the divorce mediations.
Sex and Skin: Nothing explicit, but there are a few scenes that depict the emotional and physical domestic violence at work in Lee Seo-jin and Kang Hee-sub’s marriage.
Parting Shot: “Let’s stop here,” Seo-jin is telling Sung-han over the phone, after a fit of trauma at home. “I should’ve been more worried about Hyeon-u.” But Shin only encourages his client to get some rest and eat a big meal. “This is no longer a divorce mediation. It’s a trial. And we are going to win.”
Sleeper Star: Yoo Joo-hye has a couple of strong scenes here as Bang Ho-yeong, a sarcastic and endearingly flighty producer on Lee Seo-jin’s radio program and one of the few people in her life who’ve stood by her.
Most Pilot-y Line: “It’s bound to get really messy,” Shin says of Lee Seo-jin’s divorce and custody battle. “Your life could get even more miserable than it is now. You might even lose the suit. Despite all that, do you still think it’s worth trying?”
And as emotional notes of piano swell in the background, Lee declares her determination to fight. Shin will take the case.
“Should we shake hands or high-five?”
Our Call: STREAM IT. Divorce Attorney Shin balances its occasionally overbearing notes of sentiment against the immediately engaging performance of Cho Seung-woo as an eccentric lawyer. His heart is in the right place. But he can draw on killer instinct whenever it’s required in the courtroom.