Why did we fight in this revolution? It’s a question and dilemma that overshadows director Min-ho Woo’s film. In a clandestine meeting between Kim Kyu-Pyeong (Lee Byung-Hun) and Park Yong-gak (Do-won Kwak), they stand in the presence of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. – a symbol of American democracy, liberty and freedom.
It becomes apt to describe the weight and idealistic morals of a nation they hoped it would live up to, yet stuck on a perilous knife edge. One, still grasping at the hope that change will occur as a diplomatic transition. The other long accepting that the country needs a new leader. How will history remember those actions when there’s always a price to pay? It’s something that Park Yong-gak, the former director of the KCIA (the Korean equivalent of the CIA) acknowledges – “This is like a Greek temple. But Lincoln is a God here. He still got shot and killed.”.
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The Man Standing Next is a brilliant throwback to the old school espionage thrillers. Based on the true story of the assassination of the Korean President Park Chung-hee in 1979, it evokes the spirit of John le Carré, where the story marries intrigue, mystery and insurmountable tension within its tangled web of conspirators and players. And in doing so, director Min-ho Woo manages to shape a pulsating political thriller.
Set 40 days before President Park’s ultimate demise, Woo’s film is very topical. Not just because of its historical controversy (considering there’s still a nationwide debate for many Koreans about the real-life Kim and his intentions on that fateful day), but how self-aware it is, given the current state of global affairs. Politics, especially in the last few years, has reared its ugly head with the rise of ‘populist’ and ‘nationalist’ leaders. The very fabric of democracy tested beyond limits.
And loyalty – especially the blind kind – has never been more pertinent and relevant in witnessing leaders exercise their power and the enablers who are willing to abide by their wishes – even if it’s to the detriment and harm of the people they were elected to protect. At what point is ‘enough is enough’ when the trajectory is heading down a dangerous path? What is the threshold where you draw the line? In a film that is very much about ‘what would you do for the love of country’, Woo doesn’t depict this as a heroic tale. Perhaps a complicated, tragic yet necessary one (as in, a means to an end), but the looming atmosphere that is felt throughout is one of ugliness in changing the fate of a nation on the brink of unrest.
There’s a Downfall parody meme moment where President Park (played by Sung-min Lee) quickly realises the extent of his unpopularity. His Ex-Director of the KCIA testifies in court against his former ruler (known as ‘Koreagate’), and to make the situation worse, he has written down the exploits for an upcoming book. The President, unhinged by his volatile vanity, directs his outburst towards his current Director Kim Kyu-Pyeong. And the exchange becomes symptomatic of what ultimately needs to be done in silencing his traitorous adversaries.
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It’s the first of many ‘grey area’ moments that Woo and fellow screenwriter Jin-min Lee deploy as they slowly build up the film’s pressure-cooker environment. A clandestine meet to retrieve Park’s manuscript slowly evolves into an international conspiracy involving the corrupt Korean President and an individual called ‘Lago’, someone within the close personal ranks of the President’s company who’s helping him stash away money into secret Swiss bank accounts. And like any Greek tragedy, Kim’s world begins to unravel, between who to trust and the growing deterioration in his relationship with President Park.
It’s hard to take your eyes off the screen with Lee Byung-Hun’s magnetic performance. Dressed impeccably like a ‘George Smiley’ type, he shows incredible restraint in wrestling the endless dichotomies of his character. This is someone who believes wholeheartedly in the values and sanctity of his country. This is someone who wants to uphold democracy at every opportune moment. He explains his stance in a heated confrontation with the ‘trigger happy’ Head of Security Kwak Sang-cheo (Hee-Joon Lee) – the merging of personality and dignity. It’s hard to overlook his point of view – a former soldier who took part in the previous military coup believing in the principle of change, yet somehow refuses to accept that ousting one leader may have brought in someone far worse. It’s the power of belief that he holds onto while remaining incredibly loyal to his president. But Hun’s depiction plays into that conflict and naivety so well, knowing with each passing day, the delusion is a growing lost cause.
The escalating shifts tie in with the overall aesthetics of the film and Kim’s personality. With Nak-seon Go on cinematography duties, the film is beautifully weighted by its stylistic choices and camera positioning. Kim is centrally framed, which speaks volumes in depicting a man torn, divided, and caught in the middle between loyalty to a tyrant and his country. Each decision is a growing precipice on which direction he turns, testing his friendship with his former director and the allies he entrusts to help. And Yeong-wook Jo’s score only increases the tension that is reminiscent of the effect felt in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Sicario.
And it’s the slow erosion of his faith that is evident, a constant clash of ideals at play which is repeatedly highlighted by its authoritarian President. The President surrounds himself with ‘yes’ men, who fuel his militaristic desires of force and continual lust for power. “You have my full support. Do as you please”, is a line laced with so many layers of menace and vindictive intent that entraps his supporters into committing violent, brutal acts ‘in the name of the President’ but can throw them under the bus as the scapegoat (sounds familiar right?). But with every slow drag of his cigarette, the gradual sips of Rice Wine Cocktail or the quiet conversations that are supposed to elicit some empathy about the difficulties of rulership, they are essentially power play moves. It’s a callous test thrown into the mix, to see how far people around him are willing to go before they’re disposed of their company, and Woo builds its pathos into an effective and uncompromising mood piece.
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That feeling is reinforced by how patient it is in deepening its mystery, globetrotting between the US, Korea and France to showcase the scale of the operations yet maintain its intricacy that’s found in the conversations and the stakes it cultivates. When all the classic hallmarks of the genre are running in full force – the manipulation, the deception, the subterfuge, and subsequent betrayal – the payoff (its breaking point) in the third act is a justified reward.
It feels as if the world has a dearth of good spy thrillers as of late, outside the household names (and extravagance) of James Bond, Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) or Jason Bourne (the Bourne franchise). While those films adopt a ‘fantastical’ quality in their adventures, The Man Standing Next is a good reminder of the work within the shadows – and it’s murky, dark and unforgiving. And its real-life historical ties make it thoroughly compelling throughout.
The Man Standing Next played at Glasgow Film Festival from 7th-10th March.