In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the arts section has decided to showcase works created by Asian directors and writers. The reviews on this page reflect a step in the right direction toward an increasingly global perspective on entertainment.
After the success of Parasite and the criminally underrated Burning in 2019 and 2018 respectively, American audiences eager to watch more enticing films from South Korea can turn to the 2020 film The Man Standing Next, a political thriller directed by Woo Min-ho based on the 1979 assassination of Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Winner of Best Film by the Korean Association of Film Critics in 2020, the movie breaks down the 40 days leading up to Park’s assassination. It showcases the political jockeying behind Park’s closest associates and serves as both an entertaining historical depiction and an insight into the political turmoil that Korea experienced for decades after the Korean War. For American audiences that may be unfamiliar with the ruthless and authoritarian rule of Park or the Bu-Ma Democratic Protests, the film can explain a lot about the political climate in Korea at the time. Although the film is a historical retelling, its central message still rings true today: political figures must be held accountable for the consequences of their actions.
The film takes a few historical liberties, such as combining several political officials involved in the assassination into one characater, Kim Gyu-Pyeong (Lee Byung-Hun). Kim serves as the “man standing next,” the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and the clear successor to the chilling and calculated Park (Sung-min Lee). Conflict ensues when Park Yong-gak (Do-wan Kwak), a former KCIA director and friend of Kim, testifies to the United States Senate in an effort to publish a manuscript and expose corruption and abuse within the Park regime.
But as the relationship between Kim and Park deteriorates, Park begins to favor the persistent, status-seeking lackey Kwak Sang-Cheon (Hee-joon Lee)—an equally corrupt man who eventually suggests to Park that he dispatch tanks to kill millions of protesters in Busan during the Bu-Ma Democratic Protests.
Lee plays Park perfectly, hitting every tone of a demonic and power-hungry ruler. The audience is first introduced to Park while he is getting a hot shave at a barber as he stares ghastly into the mirror, which gives audiences a necessary first impression of the character. Throughout the movie, Lee leans into this persona.
There are no glaring issues with the movie, and the film becomes incredibly engrossing in the final 15 minutes when the assassination takes place. But, there is a lack of emotional buildup to that crescendo. The tension between Kim and Park could have been much more intense, as the friends became enemies in the midst of a brewing political storm. If director and screenwriter Woo put more emphasis on the dynamic and relationship between Kim and Park, he could have made this an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Released over 40 years after Park’s assasination, the themes of political accountability and transparency in The Man Standing Next are still prevalent for audiences today. Whether it is former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and imprisoned in 2017, or the only twice-impeached president in U.S. history Donald Trump, the need to stand up against rulers who abuse their power has always been relevant.
The Man Standing Next serves as a reminder that when political power teeters into corruption, action must be taken to prevent further injustices. Though the film showcases a rather violent solution, it also displays just what is at stake when citizens’ individual rights are violated.
Photo Courtesy of Showbox