The Man Standing Next
t.l. L’uomo accanto
남산의 부장들 (Namsan-ui bujang-deul)
South Korea, 2020, 114’, Korean
Directed by: Woo Min-ho
Script: Woo Min-ho, Lee Ji-min
Photography (color): Go Nak-seon
Editing: Jeong Ji-eun
Art Direction: Choi Ju-yeon
Music: Jo Young-wook
Producers: Kim Won-guk, Kang Sa-ra, Kim Jin-woo
Cast: Lee Byung-hun (Kim Kyu-pyeong), Lee Seong-min (President Park), Kwak Do-won (Park Yong-gak), Lee Hee-jun (Chief of Security Kwak Sang-cheon), Kim So-jin (Deborah Shim), Seo Hyun-woo (Chun Doo-hyuk)
Date of First Release in Territory: January 22nd, 2020
Premiere status: International Festival Premiere
1979. The KCIA director Kim Kyu-pyeong is a trusted right-hand man to South Korean dictator President Park. When his friend, former KCIA honcho Park Yong-gak threatens to expose dirty secrets of the Park regime to the US Congress, Kim is put in a tight spot. He also becomes concerned that President Park is putting too much trust in the sociopathic, violent sycophant Kwak Sang-cheon, his Chief of Security. When pro-democracy activists ignite an uprising in Busan, and the President agrees with Chief Kwak that a possibly lethal suppression of the protesters should be implemented, Kim has to decide what is the right course of action for himself and for the nation.
Director Woo Min-ho has described this film as the final part of a trilogy that began with Inside Men and continued with The Drug King. All three films explore the nature of political power and the price Korean men are willing to pay to maintain their illusions of omnipotence. Here, Woo has chosen to dramatize the real-life assassination of President Park Chung-hee. I am not sure whether Woo wanted not to repeat past mistakes (The Drug King was widely criticized for its overcluttered narrative and stylistic excesses) or merely found the current style more fitting to this subject, but The Man Standing Next is extremely streamlined, visually speaking, with baldly cavernous sets (not at all like the grungy real life of South Korea in 1979).
The engine driving The Man Standing Next is the performances of its superb actors. Lee Byung-hun (as Kim Kyu-pyeong) does not resemble the real-life Kim Jae-gyu at all, but he projects a coiled intensity rarely seen in his other roles. Lee refuses to reduce Director Kim’s motivation to a personal sense of betrayal, and successfully keeps viewers guessing about the exact calculus in his mind.
Kwak Do-won (as Park Yong-gak) is fine as a heavily fictionalized version of real-life former KCIA Director Kim Hyung-wook, although due to the rather unnecessary invention of a “friendship” between his character and Kim Kyu-pyeong, he has to soft-pedal many terrible aspects of the former. He simply does not look nasty or arrogant enough to be the head of the KCIA, feared and hated by President Park’s own ruling party. The talented Lee Seong-min (The Spy Gone North) is, like Kwak Do-won, somewhat miscast in the role of President Park. He skillfully conveys the serpentine greed and paranoia inside the folksy charm of the military dictator, but Lee appears constrained, as if reluctant to dispel the Korean public’s image of Park. He never fully comes alive in the role, though he does a commendable job essaying iconic moments from the last days of Park’s life, such as muttering “I am OK,” while bleeding from a bullet hole in his chest.
In the end, the film’s streamlined style is its strength and weakness. The superlative acting of the leads do draw viewers into the complex narrative. But at the same time, the heightened theatricality renders all these characters more like icons in Renaissance paintings than flesh-and-blood people. Unlike Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang, which attempts to highlight the absurdity of absolute political power through black comedy, the present film aspires to be documentarian, not to say “realist.” In the end, however, it treads the path of many Korean films dealing with history: greatly attentive to material details but insisting on fictionalizing its characters to generate an affective response from viewers. I endorse the film’s respectful attitude toward the psychology of its principal characters, but I wish it were more reflective about the relationship between the actual people and the dramatized versions of them.
Woo Min-ho was born in 1971. His feature debut, Man of Vendetta (2010), featured Kim Myung-min in the role of a priest who leaves the church and sets out for revenge when his daughter is kidnapped. Woo’s second film The Spies (2012) was an action comedy that took 1.3 million admissions at the box office. It was with the huge hit Inside Men (7 million admissions, plus another 2 million admissions for an extended director’s cut) in 2015 that Woo broke through. Although his fourth feature The Drug King (2018) feel somewhat short of expectations, he once again topped the box office with his 2020 release The Man Standing Next.
FILMOGRAFIA / FILMOGRAPHY
2010 – Man of Vendetta
2012 – The Spies
2015 – Inside Men
2018 – The Drug King
2020 – The Man Standing Next