Kingmaker (2022)

Kingmaker, transcript of introduction to screening at London Korean Film Festival, 2022

At the beginning of Kingmaker, in a backwater of Gangwon Province in 1961, a smallhold farmer complains to the local pharmacist Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun) about a neighbour whom the farmer has himself witnessed stealing his chickens’ eggs at night. The problem is that there is little point making an appeal to the village foreman, as the thief simply denies what he has done, and the foreman, as a relative of the thief, is disinclined to find any fault with him. So the pharmacist Chang-dae proposes an unorthodox, ethically questionable strategy: the farmer should tie red strings around the legs of all his chickens, secretly plant one chicken in the neighbour’s coop, and then publicly accuse the neighbour of now stealing a chicken as well as the eggs, and show the red string as irrefutable proof that the chicken is one of his own. In this way, the criminal is caught red-handed – even if he has been framed for a specific crime that he did not in fact commit – and given the foreman’s nepotistic corruption, this act of subterfuge may be the farmer’s only recourse to justice. “It’s a cruel tactic,” Chang-dae concedes, adding: “Or, you can just live your life as a pushover.” In other words, to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.

In this sequence we learn everything we need to know about Chang-dae: he is calculating, ruthless, and not afraid, in his pursuit of justice, to act with injustice, or to use any means to achieve his ends. When Chang-dae meets the local labour activist Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), he is immediately impressed by the would-be politician’s values, and offers to serve as his consigliere. “To fight people covered in shit,” Chang-dae advises Woon-bum, “you need to get dirty” – and while Chang-dae insists that he is only temporarily a pharmacist, he nonetheless uses a pharmacological metaphor to describe his own role in Woon-bum’s political campaigning, claiming to be “both poison and antidote.” For as the years pass and Woon-bum rises to power within the oppositional New Democratic Party, Chang-dae is always there in the shadows, deploying his dark arts and dirty tricks to beat the corrupt incumbents, and the rivals on his own side, at their own heavily rigged game.

During the very real military dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee (here played by Kim Jong-soo), the New Democratic Party was an actual Opposition from 1967 until its disbandment in 1980, and Woon-bum and Chang-dae are also based on real people. For Woon-bum is obviously the activist and politician Kim Dae-jung who, after decades of campaigning in which he faced an assassination attempt, abduction, imprisonment and exile, and even received a formal death sentence, would finally become South Korea’s eighth President from 1998 to 2003 (long after the film’s events), and was credited with ruling over the nation’s economic recovery, building up its cyberinfrastructure and introducing the modern welfare state. Chang-dae is based on Kim Dae-jung’s electoral strategist Eom Chang-rok, and the lack of concrete information about this shadowy figure may explain why writer/director Byun Sung-hyun  has decided to give these two lead characters pseudonyms, expressly marking their interpersonal dramas as fiction. For here Byun has taken plenty of licences and liberties, even as he sets his film’s events against a backdrop of real Korean political history that some viewers will still be old enough to remember.

In many ways Kingmaker is a dialectic about different ways of conducting politics. Where Woon-bum embodies high idealism, Chang-dae represents cynical pragmatism – and where Woon-bum enjoys the limelight, Chang-dae operates in the shadows. Yet if Chang-dae is the antithesis to Woon-bum’s thesis, the film offers a synthesis: for it is precisely the collaboration between these two very different men that ever so slowly – belatedly, even – leads to the change for which they both yearn. Chang-dae’s Machiavellian manipulations might seem to cast him as the villain to Woon-bum’s hero, but both, at least at first, need each other equally, and Woon-bum’s staggered success is rooted as much in Chang-dae’s backroom deals as in his own political judgements and rhetorical skills. Having long since broken bad, ultimately Chang-dae will test his capacity for nihilism against that of his opposite number, President Park’s truly amoral spin doctor Mr Lee (Jo Woo-jin), and will discover that he does in fact have limits, as well as his own moral principles.

Byun Sung-hyun’s previous film The Merciless, which screened at the London Korean Film Festival in 2017, also starred Sol Kyung-gu, was also co-written with Kim Min-soo, and was a double-dealing, chronology-crossing noirish gangster flick, with aspiration and ambition at its dark heart. Although Kingmaker is set in the world of politicians rather than criminal gangs (even if the distinction between them is not always so obvious), this latest feature from Byun is also concerned with the pursuit of power and with the dynamics of betrayal between two men with intersecting aims. Yet apart from being both a character-driven drama and an intense thriller, Kingmaker can also be regarded as a kind of tragic romance. For though mismatched from the start, Woon-bum and Chang-dae form not just an odd, but an oddly complementary couple, as they engage in their on-again off-again relationship over decades, each fascinated with their mutual similarities and differences, and closely, illicitly co-dependent on one another in a manner that draws disapproval and even jealousy from their partners, friends, colleagues, family, and even from each other. So this is a story of a love, not always evenly requited, between two men who are destined not to be together forever, and whose two-timing treachery, though certainly political in nature, is also subtly eroticised in homosocial terms. 

For the most part, though, Kingmaker is a film about people struggling to do the right thing in an unjust system and society where only the wrong things are rewarded – and for this reason it has lessons for all of us today.  

strap: Byun Sung-hyun’s spin-focused political intrigue pits high ideals against cynical pragmatism under the Park dictatorship

Opposition politician Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu) and his spin doctor Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun)

My programme note: In 2017, the London Korean Film Festival screened Byun Sung-hyun’s double-dealing, chronology-crossing neo-noir The Merciless – and now Byun returns with the latest that he has directed, co-written with regular collaborator Kim Min-soo: a saga of aspiration and ambition, backroom deals and betrayal, all powered by two excellent performances.

Set mostly during the dictatorship of Korea’s third president Park Chung-hee (1963-1979), this tense political period piece tracks the rise of Kim Woon-bum (Sul Kyung-gu) from backwater labour activist to Presidential nominee of the opposition New Democratic party, helped all the way by his Machiavellian man in the shadows Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun). In these turbulent, often hopeless times, the film offers a dialectic between Kim’s idealism and Seo’s cynical pragmatism, between ends and means, and between lofty principles and the manipulative spin used to communicate (and compromise) them.

© Anton Bitel