THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG (2005)
The demise of a lecherous, authoritarian president in Director Im’s stylish and controversial political satire
While history is often fascinating enough by itself, revisionist cinema has always found a way to satirise our pasts in meaningful and absorbing ways.
Im Sang-soo, as both a person and filmmaker, takes no prisoners, so when he decided to make a black comedy from the assassination of former president Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea between 1963 and 1979, he landed himself in resulting lawsuits and censorship disputes.
The lawsuit was brought forward by Park’s only son, Park Ji-man, and resulted in nearly four minutes of mainly historical documentary footage being censored out of the film. Director Im simply decided to run a black screen in cinemas during this passage.
The ruling was eventually overturned, but perhaps the most controversial elements are not the real documentary footage, but how President Park was characterised in the start of the film. Visiting a brothel, pawing over young woman and perhaps more controversially demonstrating an admiration for South Korea’s former colonial rulers Japan, even speaking in Japanese himself.
It is possible that some of the shock factor might be lost on international audience who are unaware of such historical controversies. Thankfully, the film provides plenty elsewhere in terms of Im’s superb direction and its dark humour.
In a heavily guarded safe house, President Park, his personal bodyguard Cha Ji-cheol, KCIA director Kim, Chief Secretary Yang and two young women gather for a boozy dinner.
While there, Kim works with KCIA Colonel Min to plot the assassination of President Park and end his 15-year reign over South Korea (not a spoiler, a historical fact).
After Director Kim performs the act, in two parts owning to a jammed gun, the assassination group attempts to make it looks like an ambush by North Korean forces, but as loyalties are split the plan goes awry.
As the story and its real-life characters are so well known to Korean audiences, the film does assume a certain degree of assumed knowledge, particularly in the range of sharp-suited government officials who interact and mix.
Something that all audience members can behold is the stylish treatment the events get – typical of Director Im. Some sweeping shots are masterful, including one aerial shot, where we walk through the aftermath of the assassination across various rooms.
Im often places us as outsider looking in on this historic event. We are almost in the bushes outside at times, peering through the windows into this powerful inner circle. This sense of voyeurism fits the menacing theme of the film and the controversy over its release.
For a country that has suffered from extensive period of cinematic censorship – most notability during President Park’s presidency – the fact this film caused such censorship issues in 2005 makes both the film and the controversy over its release equally poignant.
That aside, Director Im’s ability to frame a stylish shot – rivalled perhaps only by Park Chan-wook in modern Korean cinema – means this is journey of artistic craft in its own right.