A Gripping Political Drama
(Set to Follow Parasite to the Oscars)
Why were the 70’s such a tumultuous time in the history of politics? Not that politics isn’t a perpetual hotbed of scandal, but the 70’s seem particularly rife. Nixon’s Watergate, Lord Lambton’s sex scandal, the Eagleton Fiasco, Abscam, among other shockers of their day. But do you recall the one in South Korea?
Before we begin and as an FYI, in 2019 South Korea was rated the 23rd most democratic country by The Economist Intelligence Unit. We won’t share the full list, but with 193 countries validated by the UN, 23 is within the top 12 percent.
The Man Standing Next (Amazon) depicts the events leading up to the 1979 assassination of South Korean President, Park Chung-Hee. Just so we’re clear from the get-go, he’s no Peter Pumpkinhead, earning his demise after 18 years as dictator – at least that’s how it’s portrayed.
Released in January 2020 in both Korea and the US, it won several awards including best director, best art direction, supporting actor for Lee Sung-Min (as President Park) and at least 6 best actor awards (some still pending) for the always fabulous Lee Byung-Hun (as Director Kim) who also led 2019’s Ashfall.
Director Woo Min-Ho has made a career creating dramatic movies featuring strong leaders and caustic in-fighting such as Inside Men (Amazon) and The Drug King (Netflix). It’s not his first piece tackling the 70’s or actual events either, so you’re in good hands.
Based on a newspaper serialization and subsequent novel of its Korean name, Namsanui Bujangdeul – The Directors of Namsan, the film has that sepiaed tone of warm golds and browns that help transport you through the time capsule. An updated All The President’s Men vibe wends us through history and government of the day. If you know as much about Korean politics as I do, we’ll both start at the beginning.
The action takes place over 40 days beginning with former KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency) Director Park Young-Gak’s defection to the US. That ignites a series of events driving to the eventual assassination of the president by one of his cabinet leaders.
But let’s back up a little, as there’s a lot going on. The movie kicks off with a few lines of history to set the scene. On May 16, 1961, there’s a military coup d’état, resulting in the establishment of The Third Republic. Korea’s first intelligence unit, the KCIA, is established to maintain absolute power for the newly positioned President Park. The KCIA was based in Namsan, Seoul, the South Mountain. The Directors of Namsan were all the president’s men.
To set the scene, the upended Second Republic had been shaped by rebellion as well, after more than a decade of economic instability during the First Republic.
Following the timeline, we leap to Washington DC, 1979 – 40 days before the murder of President Park. There’s a hearing on bribery, where Korea was found to have been suborning US Congressmen via lobbyists since 1970. Known as Korea-gate, the goal had been to quash anti-President Park sentiment. So, the US government was aware that he wasn’t exactly straight-up.
At the hearing, Young-Gak testifies to the violation of human rights, with justice nowhere to be found in his homeland. He claims to be speaking out for the sake of democracy, as he totes a detail-filled manuscript. But he must also be trying to save his skin, no? This is your first 5 minutes of film.
We soon find out what a dangerous position it is to be the man standing next to the president. This is a dramatized history, so you know how it will end. From a scene early in the film, we deduce that President Park tends to cycle out anyone with opposing views, installing new lackeys as needed. Young-Gak warns his former colleague and friend, the newly-named KCIA Director Kim, that he’ll eventually suffer the same fate. He’s not wrong.
We observe as the devoted Director Kim is gradually side-lined – a train crash in slow motion – and even as it’s happening, Kim continues to act in the president’s best interest. But if someone is determined to misinterpret your actions, he’ll find a way. And rival Kwak Sang-Cheon, Head of Presidential Security, helps President Park land there turning whatever guns he can against Director Kim.
Young-Gak, a strategist, sees it all coming as a man who’s been in the seat – ‘The President doesn’t let his number two stay alive. There is only one sun.’ To save himself (and South Korea), he wonders if Director Kim wouldn’t make a strong replacement – one the US would willingly accept. He astutely perceives that this is no longer a local game, but an international one.
President Park, however, is no pushover. Once he’s identified a target, his pattern is to keep clean hands, letting his opponent dig a grave with the calmly delivered line: ‘You have my full support – do as you please.’ Then later bludgeons him with it. The South Korea of the 70’s appears a ripe feast for the power-hungry.
Meanwhile, Director Kim is an idealist. He was part of the uprising in ’61 because he believed in it. He nods along to the little indications that things aren’t right in the way we all do, making plausible excuses in our heads. But when the president makes a choice that so blatantly betrays the people… Now, wait a minute.
The key event that pushes against Director Kim’s conscience is the Busan riots. See the outstanding movie A Taxi Driver, to catch a slice of the citizen side of the story. But this is the political end, where dissent becomes a convenient opportunity to trample the ingrates and blame events on the ‘commies’ of North Korea – another triumph for the Republic.
At least partly heroized in this piece, Director Kim chooses to focus on the events in Busan rather than his ostracization. The two seem to be happening hand-in-hand. Perhaps it was the Busan riots that forced Kim to realize that the President could turn on him too, just like he did a whole town. Maybe he sees the writing on the wall, as it was student protests that ignited the fall of the First Republic – history replaying itself.
Either way, once it becomes completely clear that the president is making choices in an un-leaderlike manner, Director Kim is pressed to make a move. When he overhears the order ‘You have my full support – do as you please,’ uttered about himself, he knows. It’s heartbreaking to watch that penny drop, even if the rest of us saw it coming long ago.
It’s not the news you’ll find surprising but the very human portrayal of his conversion from ally to assassin. And his relatable motivations – all spread across his face for you to see. Lee Byung-Hun as Director Kim is amazing as ever. This is why he wins so many awards. It makes me want to dive into Mr Sunshine (Netflix) all over again.
It should come as no surprise then that this movie has been submitted to represent South Korea at the Academy Awards. But how interesting to share such a tumultuous period in history with the world. Especially with the attention after last year’s Oscars and the continuous Korean wave, from K-pop to kimchi.
From a quality perspective, it’s there. Not just as an International Feature film – simply a great film. We’ll see if it gets the recognition it deserves. Following Parasite will be a tough act, but this film is powerful, meaningful and brave.
Verdict - 9.5/10