Review: Stage Mother

Ever since her turn as the sadistically practical head of a ruthless crime family in the Australian movie Animal Kingdom, Jacki Weaver has cultivated an enviable career as the mother-for-any-occasion-and-accent. In a sense, she’s the easiest casting choice for the part of the richly imagined Maybelline Metcalf, a Texan Baptist who travels to San Francisco to attend to the disposal of her estranged gay son’s effects after he dies from a drug overdose on stage at the drag club he owns. Weaver has an uncanny ability to somehow transcend the worst traits written into her mother hen characters, and Maybelline, on paper, must have been a doozy. Though branded a comedy, Stage Mother is essentially a woke melodrama that veers fitfully into the ridiculous, and somehow Weaver never loses sight of the character or the movie’s guiding purpose of uplift, which, by now, feels outdated when addressing matters of parents acknowledging their children’s homosexuality, especially after they’ve died.

As the title so rudely points out, Maybelline quickly accepts the people her son worked and played with, including his partner, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who reflexively pushes Maybelline away, convinced she’s a Republican banshee (she is, as a later scene involving an attempted rape and a gun prove), and his best friend, Sienna (Lucy Liu), a single mother with her own substance-abuse problems. Maybelline is so quick to take over the bar, which is failing financially, that Nathan doesn’t have time to file a restraining order and before you can say “T-bone steak” she’s jettisoned the establishment’s lip-syncing policy and is teaching the performers, which include a transitioning black man, how to sing in real harmony, just like her church choir at home. 

The name of the game is resourcefulness tempered with a bit of Texan hospitality if that hospitality weren’t informed by bigotry, which is why Maybelline’s husband back in Red Vine can’t abide his wife’s staying on any longer than she has to and she is free to strike up a flirtation with an ex-hippie-turned-5-star-hotel-concierge (Anthony Skordi), which is probably as good a metaphor for the unaffordable swamp San Francisco has turned into as anything, except that the filmmakers can’t quite grasp that irony and its implications. We’ve all seen this movie before and if it feels phony and over-determined in comparison to others of its ilk it has nothing to do with intentions, either Weaver’s or director Thom Fitzgerald’s. It’s because it doesn’t address reality outside the small world it attempts to elucidate. As melodramas go, it’s pretty limited. Any self-respecting drama queen would reject it on principle. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Stage Mother home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Stage Mother LLC

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Review: Capone

Often filmmakers try to cut historical monsters down to size by making fun of them and their ideas. In Capone, director Josh Trank looks at the last year in the life of the famed gangster, when he was reduced by a long-gestating case of syphilis to a grunting, incontinent invalid, and in one scene Trank flirts with the idea of turning the famous murderer, played by Tom Hardy, into a laughingstock when his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) takes away his ever-present cigar and replaces it with a carrot, thus prompting perhaps the most monumental of all Bugs Bunny jokes. Had Trank stuck with this concept, he might have made a movie with more thematic consistency. As it is, Capone tells us little about the man and even less about his legend, which Trank expects viewers to bring with them into the theater.

As such, the movie is mostly made up of horror show hallucinations that pretend to give us some feeling for the man’s crazed mental state; and thus the movie could be about anyone. Some of the hallucinations dig up past episodes in Capone’s life but given that the narrator is unreliable to begin with we can never be sure what these episodes are supposed to represent except Trank’s fantasies about the gangster life. Meanwhile, in the nominally lucid scenes we see his long-suffering wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), try to keep him alive in the huge Florida compound where the authorities have essentially placed him under house arrest, as well as his children doing their best to stay out of jail on their own accounts. If some scenes work, like the one where Matt Dillon, playing an old associate, comes to visit and takes Capone out for a fishing excursion, it’s because the absurdity of Capone’s jellied consciousness is made to confront something like reality, but these scenes don’t hold together from one to the next. The FBI surveillance that backdrops these scenes at least gives the movie a semblance of a through story: the feds think that Capone still has a lot of money stashed secretly and want to find out where (so does his family, for that matter), so the real joke is that Capone is so far gone in the head that he probably doesn’t even know he has money some place.

But even the humorous potential of that idea is squandered by Trank’s need to belittle Capone in the worst possible way, by making him into a childish cipher of a gangster, a cartoonish take on the old Warner Bros. crime films that Capone himself inspired, but without a sense of irony. Bugs Bunny worked for Warners, too, remember?

Opens Feb. 26 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Capone home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Fonzo LLC

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Media Mix, Feb. 21, 2021

Yoshiro Mori

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the disastrous news conference of Yoshiro Mori that presaged his resignation as the president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic organizing committee. The column may give the impression that it was the intrepid group of non-sports reporters who brought Mori down, but his fate was probably already sealed when his sexist remarks at the extraordinary JOC meeting were revealed and the foreign press made a big thing out of them. It’s sort of pointless to imagine what might have gone down if the foreign press hadn’t made a lot of noise because it’s become such a cliche. Domestic media, of course, know a stupid comment when they hear it, but they tend to step aside and let overseas media take the lead on expressing outrage when such matters present themselves. It’s not so much that it makes their job easier (though it does) as it removes from them any responsibility of having to challenge someone in power. The fact that it was the prime minister’s office that told Mori to hold the news conference to retract his remarks might indicate that the government thought they could contain the problem and save Mori’s skin. I’m not too sure about that, but, in any case, the non-sports reporters who made the effort to show up ensured that he wasn’t going to be allowed to get by with just an apology. As Atsushi Yamada said on Democracy Times, these reporters knew that the usual sports journalists who cover Mori-as-Olympic-honcho would likely not pressure him to own up to his sexist outlook, and perhaps the government, assuming that either only sports reporters would show up for the news conference or that the sports reporters who did show up would monopolize the Q&A session, thought they could leave it at that. Yamada said that most sports reporters come from the world of sports, meaning they were once athletes who understand the structure of Japanese sports and, thus, know their own place in it now that they’re journalists, which is to make sure the structure holds. During their discussion of the news conference on Ashita no College, host Satetsu Takeda and TBS radio reporter Daiki Sawada talked about how sports reporters rarely ask “real questions.” As Takeda commented, “They just want to get close to the players.” However, Sawada’s comment that Mori’s sexist remark reveals problems inherent in Japan’s sports world is off the mark. As so many women have said in the wake of Mori’s resignation, his brand of sexism is rampant throughout all Japanese power structures, and probably the world’s, as well. 

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Review: Babyteeth

First-time director Shannon Murphy is obviously the type of storyteller who, when confronted with a decision that proffers two extremes, will go with the cheekier option. Though this tale of a teenage cancer patient who has mostly given up on life contains the requisite measure of melodrama courtesy of screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, the stakes are constantly being raised by Murphy’s approach to way-out character development and outlandish plot devices that obviate the need to explore the protagonist’s pain and longing, since she has to deal with all this other shit as well. The opening scene, at which point the viewer still may not know about Milla’s (Eliza Scanlen) condition, is a real corker. Waiting on a train platform, Milla is scammed by an older punk named Moses (Toby Wallace) and instead of being mad she falls instantly in love with him, understanding that he’s obviously high on something since, as we soon find out, her own mother is hooked on drugs because she’s bipolar. For her mother, Anna (Essie Davis), obtaining these drugs isn’t a problem because her husband, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist, though he’s conscientious enough to limit her dosage as best he can. Adding to the opening salvo of too-much-information is a scene where Henry and Anna interrupt their regular therapy session for some quick, desperate sex that itself is interrupted. 

Where these various vectors lead is predictable and yet when they arrive you can still be surprised. Moses, naturally, takes advantage of Milla’s crush by crashing the family’s nice, suburban Australian home and raiding the medicine cabinet. At this point in Milla’s deterioration, her parents have obviously reached an understanding that she should have whatever she wants (“this is the worst possible parenting I could imagine”), even if Anna still insists that Milla attend cello lessons that she’s mostly given up on, and they convincingly tolerate Moses’s self-interested shenanigans, which, frankly, are pretty funny if also pretty creepy. (Wallace has a bright future as a David Lynch regular.) Though Moses is clearly the tonal crux of the movie, Murphy leaves the character to his own devices and puts all of her thematic money on Milla’s fuck-all attitude and how it affects her parents. It’s a savvy take and one that keeps paying dividends up until the inevitable reckoning with mortality, which involves cliches like losing one’s virginity and actually enjoying it and a misdirected scene in which one of Milla’s classmates tries on her wig just to be mean. Had Murphy been consistent in her bold interpretation of the material she might have jettisoned some of the side business, like the flirtatious pregnant neighbor who tempts Henry, which is not so much gratuitous as it is lacking in sufficient tension. But it says something about Murphy’s convictions that by the time Henry offers Moses free drugs in exchange for him performing an unspeakable act, you actually buy it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-67127225), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Babyteeth home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Whitefalk Films pty ltd, Spectrum Films, Create NSW and Screen Australia

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Media Mix, Feb. 14, 2021

Hiroaki Nakanishi

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about comments made by Keidanren chief Hiroaki Nakanishi and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga about the current economic situation that were picked up by the media. Though the two men were talking about two different things—Nakanishi wages, Suga welfare—they were tied together, most convincingly by Tokyo Shimbun, as showing how employment policies enacted in the 90s have led to a general loss of financial security for many people. Professor Michio Goto told the newspaper that the political world and the business world pretty much worked together to make this happen, since, after the Japanese economy started stagnating in the 90s, companies convinced the government to eliminate lifetime employment so that they could compete more effectively on a global stage. By filling human resources with more non-regular workers, companies could save money, since personnel is the biggest expense they have. Goto found that that over the past 20 years males in their 30s and 40s showed the lowest wage increase of all demographic groups, and if these men married with the intention of having a family their wives would have to go to work in order to raise their standard of living enough to raise children. The problem here is that women’s wages have always been low, regardless of whether they work full-time or part-time, and hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. The business world, he says, expects that, and takes advantage of the “social thinking” that believes male regular employees are the breadwinners and their wives just need to make enough money to help with household expenses. Consequently, the business community has never seriously considered raising women’s wages in line with men’s wages because they think no one really cares. This situation speaks to the experience of the woman profiled by Mainichi Shimbun as mentioned in the column.

As for the government’s take on welfare, which is supposed to help people who end up destitute, as Tokyo Shimbun points out, when the LDP regained power in 2012 one of the main planks on their platform was cutting welfare outlays by 10 percent, so if we accept the conventional wisdom that they won that election handily it would seem to mean that the public is all right with that, and this is where the media comes in, because they love reporting on welfare cheats, even though welfare cheats are very rare. And one of the methods the authorities use to discourage welfare applicants is calling relatives to see if they could support the applicant rather than the government, and not just parents, but siblings, aunts, uncles, even cousins. According to one expert interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun, this strategy is very effective in that many people who apply for welfare are so disheartened by the process that they never do it again, regardless of how desperate they are. 

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Media Mix, Feb. 7, 2021

Toshihiko Matsumoto

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the government’s push to enact penalties for consuming marijuana. As pointed out in the BuzzFeed interview with Toshihiko Matsumoto, an addiction therapist who is the media go-to guy whenever they need someone to talk about illegal drugs, marijuana laws in Japan are mostly about giving the police and bureaucratic entities something to do. Matsumoto tends to veer toward the cautious side in the debate about marijuana, but here he clearly advocates for more discussion about the possible medical benefits of weed, especially in the treatment of epilepsy. Of course, that’s never going to happen in Japan until the relevant organs can conduct tests, and as long as the Cannabis Control Law remains in place testing will always be forbidden. But what’s mainly interesting about the interview is Matsumoto’s opinions about the perceived harmful effects of the drug. As a person whose job is to help people get over addictions, whether it be drugs, alcohol, or gambling, he has probably more insight than anyone else in Japan as to the main reason given by the authorities for banning pot. He doesn’t deny that marijuana could be harmful, but he tends to think that criminalizing its use is counter-productive, a view that has become increasingly accepted elsewhere in the world. He finds it unfortunate that tax money is spent on investigations into drug possession and usage rather than on treatment and preventing recidivism for former addicts, but in saying so he also reveals that marijuana could be a valuable tool in getting people off other, more dangerous drugs. He theorizes that the popularity of so-called kiken (dangerous) drugs, meaning psychotropic substances that used to be quasi-legal, like mushrooms, grew as more Japanese people experimented with marijuana when they went overseas. And now that these drugs have become completely illegal, he sees more people actually going to the U.S., where marijuana has become legal in many states, for the express purpose of consuming it. Though this sounds like classic compulsive behavior, the kind of thing you would expect from someone with an addictive personality, Matsumoto doesn’t view it that way. In fact, he says that some of his patients who were hooked on kiken drugs “improved” when they switched to marijuana, though he doesn’t elaborate. He also observes that people who “like marijuana” tend to be “high spirited,” meaning they don’t manifest the kind of negative social tendencies common among addictive personalities. He also believes that the stricter law is politically motivated. The police became nervous when the UN last year changed its designation for marijuana so as to recognize its medicinal benefits, which is one reason why the police want to stiffen the law in Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is OK with that, though Matsumoto thinks if Shinzo Abe were still prime minister it would have been more difficult because his wife has been quietly advocating for relaxation of regulations to make marijuana acceptable for medical use in Japan. When Akie Abe was photographed frolicking in a hemp field, a lot of media joked about it, but she’s probably the best friend Japanese potheads have. 

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Review: Diego Maradona

Asif Kapadia, who has already given us rather depressing documentaries about racer Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse (Oscar winner), titles his latest celebrity profile Diego Maradona, which sounds unnecessary. Considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all time, the late Argentine athlete surely doesn’t need to be identified by his given name. When anyone says, “Maradona,” everyone else knows exactly who they are talking about. But taking off from an observation made by Maradona’s trainer, the title is meant to indicate the two sides of the man: the superstar player, who was essentially invented by the international media with willing assistance from the man himself, and the guy who loved the game more than anything and was basically an insecure kid who never outgrew his impoverished background. This is the classic dichotomy inherent in every Hollywood celebrity biopic, and unlike with Senna or Winehouse, this time Kapadia fell for the kind of sentimental undertow that pulls such movies under the waves. 

Reportedly, he had some 500 hours of footage with which to work, much of it never seen before. Ever since he emerged fully formed as a teenager from Villa Fiorito, a small shanty town outside of Buenos Aires, Maradon’s life has been recorded nonstop by, first, the sports press, and then the tabloids. What’s particularly startling about the early footage is just how well it captures Maradona’s peculiar talents. For a short, stocky kid, he moves like quicksilver and his dribbling often has the quality of being manipulated, as if the film itself had been sped up and wiped of awkward moves. Even a soccer novice like me was impressed by the sheer will power on display to get the ball to where he wants to put it. But Kapadia doesn’t dwell on this period, probably because it’s already been mythologized. Once he gets his point across that Maradona deserved his accolades he fast forwards to the meat of his career: his residency with Naples in the late 1980s, where he became a god after leading the team to the national championship in 1987. Though much could be said about his time with Barcelona prior to Naples, Kapadia doesn’t seem interested, probably because there he was merely mortal. Kapadia elaborates on the background of the deal that brought Maradona to Italy, and how Napoli, which one interviewee characterizes as the “armpit of Italy,” was the eternal goat of the Italian league. He plays up the mystery of why Maradona—who presumably could have played for anyone—chose to go there. That Kapadia never resolves this mystery seems deliberate, because it points up Maradona’s self-destructive streak, which supposedly started at the end of his Barcelona tenure.

Maradona went from saint to Satan when he played for his home country, Argentina, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where he led his team to victory against his hosts. As the movie so clearly shows, he then became not only fair game for the country’s rabid tabloid press, but dead meat in the end. His already excessive cocaine habit was revealed, not to mention his close connections with the Comorra, which seems to have been instrumental in bringing him to Naples, as well as his extra-marital shenanigans. Though Kapadia’s obsession with this aspect of Maradona’s existence is compelling, in the end it feels like a missed opportunity. At more than two hours long, Diego Maradona is so closely focused on its subject that it neglects the obvious sociological aspects attendant to the tale, especially with regard to national identity as it applies to international sport. The only time it addresses this matter forthrightly is in the brief bit about the famous “hand of God” play against England, which is characterized, appropriately, as a huge middle finger wielded for the sake of comic chauvinism. The tragedy of Maradona, who became overweight and sad after leaving Naples, seems too trite by itself, which means it isn’t as unusual a story as Kapadia thinks it is. Neither Amy Winehouse nor Ayrton Senna had as much influence on the world at large, but those documentaries told me more about life than Diego Maradona did. 

In Italian, Spanish and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551). 

Diego Maradona home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Scudetto Pictures Limited

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Media Mix, Jan. 31, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a press conference given by Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota Motors and the chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, about the government’s plan to ban gasoline-powered vehicles by the year 2050. Though Toyoda’s remarks, which mostly take the government to task for its plan, are self-serving, he is correct in saying that the government is just as responsible as automakers for making the future they envision a reality. The reason that electric vehicles are selling well in Europe and China is that their governments have already started creating an environment where they can sell, mainly by helping set up networks of charging stations through subsidies and other incentives. As one of the pundits said on the Abema News program cited in the column, consumers generally don’t care much about the EV discussion, and probably less about the environment in general, at least when it comes to cars. They will only buy a certain type of car if it’s convenient in terms of their needs. In that regard, automakers’ main responsibility is getting EVs to travel longer distances on a single charge, which they are doing, but people who are buying EVs tend to use them for short journeys and errands. There’s still some resistance to EVs for use on long trips, which may be why sales in the U.S. aren’t as brisk as they are in Europe and China. In America, people still take long car trips, and when gas prices are low they travel a great deal. But now that GM has announced that they, too, will stop making gas-powered cars in the near future, it’s obvious that the U.S. is also reckoning with a sea change in its attitude toward transportation.

But there are other problems to address besides the lack of charging facilities. Toyoda focuses on the electric power grid, saying that Japan will need to produce a lot more electricity if all the cars on the road are EVs. That’s another thing the government has to do because the automotive industry can’t. And whether the increase in power output leads to more CO2 is a matter that must be considered in line with the move to EVs. But another problem is waste. All these EVs will run on batteries that don’t last forever, and disposing of them will create another environmental hazard. So far, there has been little discussion on what to do about battery waste or recycling. Another pundit on Abema News said that Japan doesn’t have the “ability” to make these kinds of batteries now that Panasonic no longer makes them for Tesla, the world’s leading EV maker. Battery technology will become much more important in the future and thus this pundit is worried that Japan will lose part of its technological edge unless automakers start making their own batteries. And while Toyoda also fretted about the negative impact a switch to EVs would have on employment, since much fewer parts go into an EV as go into a gas-powered car or a hybrid, he didn’t say anything about software, which will become the main manufacturing concern when EVs dominate. As one pundit said, EVs will be more like smart phones than like cars, meaning they have to be constantly upgraded. The tech companies that control this software will control the industry. 

But one more consideration that probably has Toyoda worried is increased interest in ESG (environmental, social and governance) investments, which have boosted Tesla stock prices through the roof. Toyota, as a maker of gas guzzlers, does not benefit from such investments, and if it doesn’t get on the bandwagon now they could be left behind. Of course, Toyota is still working on hydrogen cell cars, but without a clear future in terms of sales no one is going to invest in such technology, no matter how “green” it seems. In fact, the pundits on Abema News said that the person who put the bug in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s ear about going all-EV was Hiromichi Mizuno, a member of the Tesla board of directors and former chief officer of Japan’s government pension investment fund. One pundit wondered if Toyoda’s rant was not simply an angry reaction to this intelligence, which, apparently, everyone in the industry knows about. 

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Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

It’s been a while since I’ve read Dickens, but Armando Iannucci’s fast-paced version of the novelist’s warmest tale feels to me more faithful to the spirit of Dickens than the usual stuffy cinematic adaptations (almost all of which are Great Expectations, it often seems). Though the director eschews the profanity that hallmarks his work, his usual slapstick mood prevails, bringing out the sense of the absurd that Dickens’ writing so vividly conveyed about English life in the mid-19th century. In that regard, the movie’s already noted “color-blind” approach—David is played by Dev Patel, and other characters are portrayed by actors of varying ethnic persuasions that have nothing to do with “white”—doesn’t park itself in the mind as you’re watching, since the theatrical aspects of the story are so pronounced in the first place. In the opening scene, in fact, David lectures a large audience in an auditorium about his success as an author, a means of making the first-person narrative more immediate. 

But, of course, the inventive casting—another Iannucci trait—also intensifies Dickens’ theme about the struggle to escape one’s destiny as defined by birth and class. Some viewers will likely bristle at this presentation, which implies that racism has nothing to do with the oppression we see since there are Asian actors playing gentlemen and black women playing ladies, but as the movie progresses the socioeconomic particulars take on a more universal meaning: Class may not trump racial discrimination, but its destructive effects are universal. 

Iannucci’s best move is to make David’s coming-of-age as an artist dependent on his self-illumination as a humanist. Having grown up not only poor but abused, David nevertheless sees the good in everyone, no matter how small a portion of the respective personality it commands. Peter Capaldi’s debt-defeated Mr. Micawber and Ben Whishaw’s quisling Uriah Heep, two of the more pathetic characters in an over-abundant cast, are not as off-putting as you remember them from the book (or past film versions), and while purists may find that unfortunate, it jibes with Iannucci’s overall purposes, which is to make a classic entertainment that also enlightens as it delights. The problem with this approach is that the story, per Dickens’ methodology, is overstuffed and so much happens at such a breakneck pace that certain subplots get shoved around like commuters on a packed subway. I never quite got why the certifiably demented Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) was so obsessed with the death of King Charles I, and the tragedy that befalls the impoverished inhabitants of the stranded boat where David takes up temporary residence lacks the proper measure of miserableness. 

And while Patel never comes into his own as a fully fleshed-out hero, probably because he has to compete with the likes of Tilda Swinton as his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, his cheery magnanimity is the right fit for a writer of David’s temperament. Whenever he jots down his thoughts, all of which will eventually gel into a best-selling memoir, there’s a sense of wonder at his own ability to channel those wild emotions into words. Having recently seen another liberal take on a classic novel about a writer, Martin Eden, I was struck by how much mileage Iannucci got out of just showing the act of putting pen to paper. It gave me goosebumps.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645).

The Personal History of David Copperfield home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Dickensian Pictures LLC and Channel Four Television Corporation

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Review: The Man Standing Next

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

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