This sleek fictionalized rendering of the events leading up to the assassination of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979 is the second movie I’ve seen about the incident, whose particulars, after more than 40 years, are still being disputed by historians. The Man Standing Next takes the more conventional narrative route, while Im Song-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005) took a more conspiratorial, not to mention highly sarcastic, view of the bloody circumstances. Though I’m tempted to believe The Man Standing Next is closer to the truth, I prefer the version that Im came up with if only because he extrapolated from the premise that Park and his minions were basically yakuza, and thus the proper way to approach the assassination cinematically was as a gangster movie. Though The Man Standing Next is based on a novel, it has all the earmarks of an earnest biopic, in this case of the assassin, KCIA chief Kim Jae-gyu, except that his name has been changed to Kim Gyu-pyeong and he’s played by buff, handsome superstar Lee Byung-hun.
Im’s movie was set entirely during the night of the assassination, which means Im didn’t have to elaborate on all the reasons for the assassination, boiling motive down to what was essentially a grudge match between two men with huge, deadly egos. Director Woo Min-ho has a harder time trying to unravel the various strands of intrigue that led to the fateful night, when Kim killed Park while the latter was partying with close associates and some female companions. And what’s immediately compelling about the story is the American involvement, which was hardly touched upon in Im’s movie. (Also important to consider given that The Man Standing Next is South Korea’s official submission for the foreign film Oscar in the year following Parasite‘s win for that honor and Best Picture.) Park, of course, became president after staging a coup in 1961, and had received the support of the U.S. government ever since as a staunch anti-communist, but by the late 70s and the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who prided himself on being a champion of human rights, the State Department was sick of Park’s arrogance and hubris (one diplomat calls him “a teenager”) and wanted him out, preferably through a legal election, but once they realized that he wasn’t going to go quietly other options were entertained. Former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won) basically defects to the U.S. and testifies for congress about a bribery scandal involving the South Korean government and some American lawmakers. Park is infuriated by this betrayal but also suitably nervous, because he realizes the Americans’ true motives behind the investigation. The godfather in Park would just like to just whack the former KCIA director, who is rumored to be writing a memoir, but that would likely enflame the enmity of Washington even more. As Park Yong-gak’s replacement, Kim would prefer going about the matter in a more subtle way, but since ascending to his current position he no longer has the trust of the president, who is becoming more and more unstable. More to the point, between he and Park is the burly, crude head of the presidential security detail, Kwak Sang-cheon (Lee Hee-joon), who hates his guts. Under clandestine pressure from the American side and encouraged by increasing civil unrest that is gripping the country—which he is charged by the president to eliminate—Kim eventually concludes that the only solution is to kill the president, but unlike in The President’s Last Bang the motive is not macho, self-destructive one-upmanship, but genuine patriotism: Kim is convinced that Park is taking South Korea into ruin.
Though Woo does a pretty good job of showing how this ostensibly noble motive is hypocritical in light of how much Kim has benefited materially from Park’s dictatorship, he’s not very good at the intrigue. Much of the middle portion of the movie, which involves espionage set pieces and secret meetings on park benches and in back rooms of restaurants, feels more confusing than it needs to be. We know how the story ends because the movie, as with so many similar historical recreations, begins at the end. But if Woo is no le Carre, he’s handy with a camera and the period details are more striking than they were in Im’s version of events. As I said, this one is probably closer to the historical truth, but if that’s your bag, then I recommend watching both. Between them there’s a lot to chew on.
In Korean and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
The Man Standing Next home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Showbox, Hive Media Corp. and Gemstone Pictures