Woo Min-ho‘s The Man Standing Next (Namsanui bujangdeul) is a period film set, like his previous The Drug King (2018), in the Seventies, and chronicling the last 40 days of military dictator Park’s Presidency before he and his Chief of Security were assassinated by the Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency – who was also the President’s long-term friend. This is no spoiler – for not only does the film state in introductory text that it will end in the President’s assassination, and not only does it open near the narrative’s end with KCIA Director Kim Pyu-kyeong (Lee Byung-hun) heading to the dining room where he expressly plans to shoot the President (Lee Sung-Min) dead, but it is also, more or less, a matter of historical record, based, with “creative liberties for certain stories”, on the non-fiction KCIA Chiefs which ran serially in Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper for 26 months starting from 1990. Some of the names may have been altered, but the authoritarian President Park Chung-hee really was assassinated on 26 Oct 1979, bringing eighteen years of controversial rule to an even more controversial close.
From the start, everyone knows that Park’s period of rule is drawing to an end. Korea’s close political and military allies in the United States have grown weary of Park’s human rights violations, his devious attempts to buy off American Congressmen and his funnelling of state funds into Swiss bank accounts, and when former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won) testifies in Washington as a whistle blower against Park, his memoir Traitor of the Revolution seems the explosive catalyst that may finally bring Park down. Educated, thoughtful Kim Pyu-kyeong is dispatched to stop publication of his old friend’s memoir, but finds himself having to compete for the President’s attention and favour with the bullish, bellicose Chief of Presidential Security Gwak Sang-cheon (Lee Hee-joon), at a time when Korea is being destabilised by growing civil unrest. Soon the rivalry between Pyu-kyeong and Sang-cheon will express itself in simultaneous operations to assassinate Yong-gak, bringing to Paris and its rural outskirts some suitably Melvillean cloak and dagger.
Yet as Pyu-kyeong realises that he is as expendable as his predecessor Yong-gak, in a game where the President maintains power by endlessly pitting one underling against another, the state spook finds himself haunted by Yong-gak’s question: “Why did you want the revolution?” For in the bubble of élite power where The Man Standing Next is set, a place of luxury food and drinks and elegantly appointed accommodation far removed from the unseen citizens rioting in the streets, anyone and everyone might be described as a ‘traitor of the revolution’, having long since abandoned nationalistic ideals for their own personal ambition and greed and hunger for control. Even the original so-called ‘revolution’ was merely a power-grabbing coup d’état.
Lee Byung-hun sets aside his usual status as cinematic heartthrob and man of action, playing Pyu-kyeon as a buttoned-up, rather boring bureaucrat who, though headed inexorably towards an act of violence, is marked more by hesitancy, weakness and indecision. It is Pyu-kyeon’s journey which drives the narrative, but viewers will find it difficult to root for a man who runs a state apparatus of torturers and cutthroats, who betrays his own friend to please a man whom he has come to despise, and whose final, belated choice to try to do the right thing seems governed as much by a personal instinct to survive and a sense of professional jealousy as by a desire to serve the national interest. He is a complex, difficult figure – indeed the kind of antihero who peaked precisely in the cinema of the 1970s – and if we like him at all, it is not so much because he is good as because he is the best of a bad bunch (as Yong-gak puts it, “I’m a bad guy, they’re bad too, everyone’s bad.”). When the much-anticipated murder of the President finally comes, it is a shabby, messy affair, and somehow anticlimactic, with no comfort or redemptive message on offer for the viewer.
It is now over four decades since these events took place, and Korea has moved on, a democracy no longer under military dictatorship. Yet Park’s eldest daughter Park Geun-hye very recently became Korea’s first female President before being herself prematurely deposed amid corruption scandals. Though not assassinated, she is now in prison. And so it is possible to see a direct line between this political thriller’s historical roots, and the present day. Woo Min-ho may be painstaking in the way that he reconstructs Korea’s past, but the story that he tells is also a parable of power and its abuses that resonates beyond the specificities of the Fourth Republic to any and every era.
© Anton Bitel