Political assassination films are a genre distinct from spy films and political thrillers. Whilst they too dabble in clandestine devices and moral ambiguity, assassination films possess a harder heart because ultimately somebody must, with cold resolve, put a bullet in a leader’s temple. It is a genre not always beloved, but for those who can appreciate terminal justice, Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next, about the ending of Korean revolutionary-turned-dictator Park Chung-hee, is an excellent exhibit.
The setting for The Man Standing Next is 1979 and the final 40 days of Park’s 18 years in power. The protagonist is triggerman Kim Gyu-Pyeong, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, who over the course of two hours becomes personally, professionally and ideologically disillusioned with his one-time brother in arms.
Director Kim’s catalyst is knowledge, gained from ex-KCIA director and defector Park Yong-gak, that the President has been using illegal funds to build a personal spy agency – spies who spy on spies – and is increasingly agreeing with security chief Kwak Sang-cheo in brandishing the iron rod against the people. In short, President Park is settling in as a strongman, all revolutionary principles and comrades abandoned.
The names and actions have been slightly adapted from history and the source book, Chiefs of Namsan (which remains the film’s Korean title), allowing the film to embrace elements of Macbeth. Lee Byung-hun, as Kim, is excellent as a quiet man destined to spill blood, his stares and few exclamations expressing rising frustration and jealousy as the ideology, politics and favouritism of the court begin to freeze him out. Assassination is as much ‘because I wanted to’ as ‘for the good of the nation’. Sung-min Lee, Hee-joon Lee, and especially Do-won Kwak provide strong supporting characters whose personal interests and egos bully an entire nation’s politics. ‘The Cambodians killed 3 million; us killing one or two million would be nothing’ is a revealing line.
The finest Shakespearian aspect of The Man Standing Next is the manner in which Kim’s ambition fluctuates as information drips to his ears. Hearing of the president’s personal agency irritates. Hints coming out of America about a coup massage his ego. When, in a beautifully portrayed piece of manipulation, the President talks about his succession line, Kim embarks on a wholly misguided mission. Indeed, President Park is a shit-stirring conductor even in his last throes, with ‘do as you please’ a repeated euphemism in which the tacitly promised presidential support never actually arrives. The script is well-paced in evolving plans for murder, utilising whispers and germs of ideas rather than rage.
The common complaint about films depicting corridors of power is the difficulty in tracking who is doing what. Woo does introduce a few superfluous names, and, bar the defector, everyone dresses in matching immaculate dark suits. However, it is not too arduous to strip things down, and for the most part the meetings in the Blue House and restaurants only entertain five characters.
Moreover, unlike a le Carré novel, there are not a hundred moving parts and a convoluted exercise conducted in East Germany – merely a hotel in Paris and faux outrage at discovering the people you are wire tapping are also wire tapping you.
Treat The Man Standing Next not as intrigue but a character study, in which KCIA Director Kim gets prodded until committing the equivalent of regicide, and it is a stylish, highly enjoyable and brutal play based on historical politics.
The Man Standing Next will be available to watch at the Glasgow Film Festival, 7th till 10th March