THE PRESIDENT'S BARBER (2004)
Director: Im Chan-sang
Run time: 1h 56m
Funny, surprising and poignant, Song Kang-ho excels as the naive barber in a politically unstable Korea
Comedy and satire are powerful vessels to highlight political absurdity and even outright barbarism.
Korean cinema has often wrestled with the unstable political landscape of the 1960s, most notability through more serious outing such as Aimless Bullet (1961). What The President’s Barber does is unpack nearly two decades of Korean history in a comedy with genuine meat on its bones.
When it comes to that surreal blend of comedy timing and heart-aching drama, there is no-one better to recruit than Song Kang-ho.
Song plays Seong Han-mo, a politically naive barber in the 1960s with a shop in the president's neighbourhood, a short distance from the Blue House, the official residence of Korea's head of state.
Han-mo has plenty more politically savvy acquaintances who are actively trying to change the country’s direction, while he bumbles along trying to make sense of the upheaval. When president Rhee resigns in 1960 it leads to General Park Chung-hee (Jo Yeong-jin) putting himself at the top of the government in 1963 as part of a military regime.
When Han-mo's wife Min-ja (Moon So-ri) falls pregnant, they start a family amid the turbulent times. When the KCIA chief enters his shop and orders him to the president, Han-mo starts a lengthy relationship as the personal barber to the country’s most powerful man.
The story spans nearly two decades and is told through the narration of the son, Seong Nak-an (Lee Jae-eung), who finds himself embroiled in his father’s sometime tense relationship with the military regime.
There are several brilliant comedic set ups throughout, but especially during the first act. Such as Han-mo's confusion with the V-for-Victory hand symbol, which he believes means he must pick number 2 on his election voting ballot rather than number 1. There is also an early scene where he is carting his in-labour wife through violent political protests. His white barber coat gives the impression he is a doctor and his wife is soon joined in the cart by recently shot protesters.
Amongst the comedy is that building tension of the power of an authoritarian government￼ and the fear this small community lives in, with the government convinced the locals are housing spies intent on toppling the regime.
While the film provides a brief history lesson in its own right, it is important to know the context of the historical events which run concurrently. President Park ruled with an iron fist and the film leans into these horrors with a tonal switch for its second half.
This sees Han-mo and his family drawn into the danger of having close ties to such vicious power. During this time, Han-mo transitions from a cheery barber enjoying the limelight of his celebrity client, to feeling first-hand the wrath and indifference of this bleak chapter in Korean history.
Song Kang-ho pitches his Han-mo perfectly, providing the comic relief of the early stages and progressing to the horrors of the dictatorship as we see his mood darken when his family suffers.
As such, The President’s Barber manages to tread that tricky line of comedy and harrowing drama to deliver a tale of power and submission from a dark period of Korean political history.