A cinematic history lesson that will be all-new to most Americans lacking ties to Korea, Min-ho Woo’s The Man Standing Next observes the inner circle of South Korean president Park Chung-hee during the 40 days before his assassination on Oct. 26, 1979. Though touching on a le Carre-like web of loyalties, ambition and hidden agendas, the film (an adaptation of Kim Choong-Seek’s book KCIA Chiefs) is generally less engrossing than that might suggest, only coming to life in the sweaty hours leading up to that murder. More conventional than the work of the bold South Korean auteurs who are finally breaking into Stateside consciousness, it may nonetheless benefit from post-Parasite openness to imports from the nation.
Kim’s book explored the importance during this period of the KCIA, the intelligence agency that functioned as the right hand of President Park (Lee Sung-min). (Aside from Park, the story’s characters have been somewhat fictionalized, with names different from those of their real-world counterparts.) The agency’s director was Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), who, like his predecessor Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), had served alongside the president in the Army before he took power in a military coup.
Takes some time to make its intrigue involving.
By late 1979, he had been the country’s ruler for 18 years, and even many of his closest allies — not to mention protesting citizens — thought it was time to leave. The former KCIA director is in the U.S. as the story begins, using the Koreagate scandal as a way to build interest in a memoir, Traitor of the Revolution, which denounces his former comrade. The president sends Kim to the States to retrieve the manuscript and ensure it never sees publication; it seems he wouldn’t mind if the author died in the process. (On several occasions, President Park confers one-on-one with a trusted underling about delicate situations and concludes with, “You have my full support. Do as you please.” When the aide inevitably does something extreme, the president pretends he didn’t tacitly give the order.)
On his trip, Kim learns what American spies know about his workplace. It seems there’s a mystery man, code-named “Iago,” who’s closer to the president than he is — and who handles Swiss bank accounts that reportedly overflow with ill-gotten gains. If Kim hadn’t already secretly believed it was time for this administration to end, now he can add his offended loyalty to the points on that side of the argument. But playing the role, Lee gives us little insight into what Kim is feeling. The actor looks the part and has a magnetic seriousness, but is emotionally opaque.
Back in South Korea, Kim increasingly butts heads with Gwak (Hee-joon Lee), the trigger-happy security head who is relied on more and more by the president. The bulk of the film’s plot concerns Gwak’s assorted power moves, but a scene triggering the last act sums things up: When Kim has no plan to stop anti-Park riots in Busan, Gwak argues it’s time to bring out the tanks, explicitly saying that it won’t matter much if he has to kill “a million or two” people in order to quash dissent. When the president agrees, Kim knows what he has to do.
Though the script would’ve been wise to trim some of the political maneuvering and lay more groundwork for this final day — who are those men Kim calls on when he decides to kill the president? — the immediate build-up to the assassination does get appropriately tense. Staging and performances don’t really rule out either of the competing views of the real-life assassin — was he a patriot executing a dictator, or just reacting to thwarted personal ambitions? — though the picture does lean toward the former position. Whatever his reasons, the killing didn’t immediately have the effect he may have expected: There would still be a couple of coups and a period of martial law before South Korea saw democratic rule.
Production companies: Hive Media, Gemstone Pictures
Distributor: MPI Media Group (Available Tuesday on digital)
Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Sung-min Lee, Do-won Kwak, Hee-joon Lee, So-jin Kim
Director: Min-ho Woo
Screenwriters: Min-ho Woo, Ji-Min Lee
Producers: Sarah Kang, Won-guk Kim, Min-ho Woo
Executive producers: Kim Do-Soo, Hwang Soon-il
Director of photography: Go Rak-Sun
Production designer: Cho Hwa-Sung
Costume designer: Kwak Jung-Ah
Editor: Jeong Ji-Eun
Composer: Cho Young Wuk
In Korean, English