Writers: Ji-min Lee and Min-ho Woo
Director: Min-ho Woo
You may need a notebook and access to Wikipedia while watching this complex, but stylish film about the assassination of South Korea’s President Park in 1979. The names of the important players are flashed upon the screen, but often these figures are only seen once or twice. Rather than trying to understand the various conspiracies that revolve around the President, surrender instead to the paranoia that drives the story to its inevitable end.
When an old chief of the KCIA, South Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency, threatens to release his memoirs in America, President Park sends the new head of the KCIA to deal with it. Arriving in Washington, Kim Kyu-Pyeong soon convinces his old colleague to hand over the draft of his book, but he also learns that a mysterious entity codenamed Iago is perhaps propping up Park’s presidency.
Returning to Seoul, Kim wants to continue to be loyal to his president, but is disappointed that his promises of democracy have come to nothing, and that his rule is nothing short of a dictatorship. Sensing that Kim has different ambitions for the country, Park turns to his head of security for advice, a move that humiliates Kim. Did this public disgrace spur on Kim to kill Park in the Blue House, the president’s official residence?
If keeping up with the story is difficult, treasure instead the immaculate details of Min-ho Woo’s film. Never have the 70s been so elegant, and never have the 70s been so well dressed. The suits, all three piece, are tailored to perfection, and Lee Byung-Hun as Kim is effortlessly cool, despite the fact that he becomes increasingly uptight and suspicious as he uncovers more plots that the president may be a part of. Every emasculation Kim suffers is subtly visible on Lee’s face, a facade of calm that barely hides the scorching embarrassment behind. Sung-min Lee, usually in shirtsleeves, looks every inch of the President, and easily carries the threat of violence.
Added to the sartorial sophistication are the opulent rooms that hold the many meetings in Seoul, Washington and Paris, and Nak-seon Go’s cinematography, which only adds the slightest sepia tone to the film, when others would have made the film look like a old home-movie or saturated it in the brashest of colours. The 70s were tasteful, this film suggests. Even the assassination scene is presented as an immaculate tableau, a little reminiscent of Kill Bill, and it is after this scene that Min-ho Woo gives one final excruciating humiliation to his anti-hero.
History has not quite decided why Kim killed President Park, and The Man Standing Next keeps a few options open, although perhaps his reasons were more personal than political. If you can disentangle the politics and, in its place, focus on the causes that make a man a killer, then there is much to enjoy – and learn – in this atmospheric thriller.
The Glasgow Film Festival ran from 24 February to 7 March 2021