The President’s Last Bang
t.l. L’ultimo colpo del presidente
그때 그사람들 (Geu-ttae geu-saramdeul)
South Korea, 2005, 103’, Korean, Japanese
Directed by: Im Sang-soo
Script: Im Sang-soo
Photography (color): Kim Woo-hyung
Editing: Lee Eun-soo
Art Direction: Lee Min-bok
Music: Kim Hong-jip
Producers: Shin Chul, Shim Jae-myung
Cast: Baek Yoon-sik (Kim Jae-gyu), Han Suk-kyu (Joo), Song Jae-ho (President), Kim Eung-soo (Secretary Min), Jeong Won-joong (Chief Cha)
Date of First Release in Territory: February 3rd, 2005; 2019 (restored version)
Some have referred to Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang as “the most political film in South Korean history.” Certainly, few works have stirred up the same level of heated public debate as this portrayal of the night when Park Chung-hee – an authoritarian president who took power in a 1961 military coup and held it until 1979 – was shot and killed by his chief of intelligence. Although Korea has changed beyond recognition in the decades since Kim Jae-gyu pulled the trigger, Park’s legacy has been a lingering source of contention. Eight years after the release of this film, Park’s daughter was elected President, and served a highly controversial term until being impeached and removed from office in 2017.
Many have viewed Last Bang as a bit of character assassination aimed at the late President Park. The parts that stirred the most controversy include the portrayal of Park and his advisors speaking in Japanese, his depicted affection for Japanese enka songs, his habit of holding late night drinking parties with young girls, and his cowardice in the face of danger. Just why Park’s fondness for things Japanese should be so controversial requires a short history lesson, but suffice it to say that he is portrayed as being associated and aligned with Korea’s former colonizers.
But there is much more to this film than simple political point-scoring. It centers on a protagonist who consciously decides to change the course of history. In that sense, it raises an interesting question: to what extent can an individual, or a small group of people, really do that?
The process of unleashing change is shown as being unexpectedly simple. Director Im brings the events of this famous night down to a very human level, through evocative details concerning the many personalities involved, and through his liberal use of black humor (a welcome antidote to the chest-thumping heroism we see in many other Korean films about history). Thus, the final act that brings down the Park era (which tellingly comes in the middle, not the end of the film) comes across as being quite matter-of-fact.
Yet in the chaos that follows the shooting, we gradually realize that Kim Jae-gyu’s ambition to transform Korean history is up against forces more powerful than the slain dictator himself. An individual can set loose the forces of history, but cannot control them. Those who are familiar with Korean history will know that although Park may have made his exit on that night, the oppressive military dictatorship lived on in another form.
Back in 2005, just before The President’s Last Bang was scheduled to open in theaters, Park Chung-hee’s son sued for defamation and filed an injunction to block its release. A judge from the Seoul Central Court allowed the release to go ahead, but in a highly unusual ruling, ordered that four minutes of documentary footage be removed, since it might “confuse” viewers as to what is fact and what is fiction. The footage – clips of anti-government protests shown at the film's opening, and images from Park’s funeral that accompany the end credits – were important to the overall work, and the four minutes of black screen which appeared in their place left the audience with an altogether different viewing experience (because it was a legal ruling, it applied to screenings worldwide, not just in Korea). It took several years to go through the appeal process and get this ruling reversed, but now thankfully audiences are able to watch the restored version in its complete form.
Im Sang-soo studied at the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) and worked as an assistant director under Im Kwon-taek before making his feature debut with Girls’ Night Out (1998). He has since gone on to establish himself as one of Korea’s leading directors. After landing in the Venice Film Festival’s competition section with his third feature A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), he was subsequently invited to the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes with The President’s Last Bang. Three of his films have been invited to Cannes’ Official Selection, with The Housemaid (2010) and The Taste of Money (2012) screening in competition.
1998 – Girls’ Night Out
2000 – Tears
2003 – A Good Lawyer’s Wife
2005 – The President’s Last Bang
2007 – The Old Garden
2010 – The Housemaid
2012 – The Taste of Money
2015 – Intimate Enemies
2020 – Heaven: To the Land of Happiness