THE MAN STANDING NEXT (2020)
The assassination of President Park gets a dramatic retelling featuring a star turn by Lee Byung-hun
In the wake of the 1979 death of Park Chung-hee, the third President of South Korea, the chief investigator of the assassination famously concluded it was "too careless for a deliberate act and yet too elaborate for an impulsive act."
Such ambiguity of planning and motivation provides an intriguing set-up for Woo Min-ho's tense dramatisation of the 40 days before the assassination.
In 2005, director Im Sang-soo turned to satire and black comedy to portray the assassination of President Park in The President's Last Bang. The brothels and drinking of that iteration have been traded for dialogue-heavy conflict and tension, with Lee Byung-hun excelling as the conflicted director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) based on the real-life Kim Jae-gyu.
The film, inspired by the non-fiction bestseller Directors of Namsan, depicts President Park (Lee Sung-min) at a crossroads of his dictatorship after 18 years in command. By his side is KCIA director Kim (Lee Byung-hu) and President Park’s hot-headed bodyguard (Lee Hee-joon). Meanwhile in the US, former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won) is lifting the lid on President Park’s corruption, throwing his future tenure into uncertainty.
As the Korea-based trio grapple with how to handle the interloper and his stateside revelations, Kim is wrestling with his moral conscience and the best future for his country. As an obvious choice to replace the battle-weary President Park, he must balance personal ambition with an acceptance that the Korean people are restless for the return of democracy.
There is almost nowhere to hide in the political drama genre. No sprawling action shots to distract, no cheap jump scares to invigorate, no cheesy gags to lighten the mood. This is especially the case in real-life versions, where the dramatic conclusions are already known to the audience. Instead, such films largely build tension through dialogue and rest on a pitch-perfect script, tight direction and fine individual performances to work.
It is Lee’s central performance that holds a slow-burn build-up together. His depiction of KCIA director Park is one of conflicted emotions. Of personal loyalty versus national development. Ultimately this produces a form of calmed anger which drives forward his motivations and Lee musters this perfectly.
As for Woo’s direction, it is a feat of technical competency and a fine piece of overall filmmaking.
Where the film does wobble is in its third quarter, with the set-up established and the known climax approaching, it leans on too many scenes that do not contribute to the overall narrative arc, resulting in some of the film’s tension evaporating.
It is also a film which warrants close concentration, in itself by no means a fault, but some viewers may find it wanting if they miss a seemingly minor detail which grows to become major.
The film will almost certainly intensify interest in the real-life historical event of President Park’s assassination, and some will probably relish its retelling as a celebration of the demise of his dictatorship.
As a film, it is a technical marvel with a superb central performance, but finds itself stalling when it should be galloping towards its history-defining climax.