South Korean film “The Man Standing Next” is a slick and competent period drama film which does not go further than what I and many other South Korean audiences already know. Based on one of the major historical incidents in South Korean during the 1970s, the movie tries to look into an increasingly unstable political situation preceding that infamous incident, and it succeeds to some degree, but it is so enamored of period mood and details that it does not provide much of modern perspective to its historical subject.
Based on Kim Chung-sik’s novel “Chiefs of Namsan”, the movie mainly revolves around Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), who is a fictional version of Kim Jae-gyu. On October 26th, 1979, Kim, who was the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) at that time, shot President Park Chung-hee to death when they were having a night drinking party along with a few other high-ranking officials and two young ladies to entertain them, but the death of President Park, who ruled South Korea for 18 years since his coup d’état in 1961, was promptly followed by another coup d’état, and Kim was eventually executed shortly after that.
After the opening scene briefly showing that fateful night, we see the volatile circumstance surrounding President Park (Lee Sung-min) in September 1979. After going into exile for several years, his former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), who is a fictionalized version of Kim Hyong-uk, decides to testify in front of the US congress for helping its current federal investigation of a massive bribery scandal involved with a bunch of American congressmen and the South Korean government, and President Park and his people have been quite nervous about how much Park will tell in public. As a matter of fact, Park has been actually writing a tell-all memoir, and President Park is certainly ready to suppress it by any means necessary, though he and his people cannot simply eliminate Park as fearing what the US government may do for retaliation.
As a guy who was once quite close to Park, Kim prefers to handle this problem as quietly and tactfully as possible, but President Park does not listen to him at all, and Kim has also been pressured a lot by his diminishing status in President Park’s inner circle. Officially, he is the No.2 working right below President Park, but Kwak Sang-cheon (Lee Hee-joon), the head of the president’s security team who is a fictional version of Cha Ji-chul, often behaves as if he is the most loyal and trusted member in President Park’s inner circle, and Kwak’s frequent arrogant behaviors often annoy and exasperate Kim day by day.
As Kim keeps trying to get things under control as much as he can, a certain temptation slowly grows in the corner of his frustrated mind. Although President Park remains regal and confident on the surface, his military regime has been imploding inside as the country continues to be shaken by the ever-increasing public demand for democracy, and it seems to be a matter of time before something finally happens to overthrow President Park and his military regime. While firmly sticking to his longtime loyalty to President Park as usual despite all those unkind words from President Park, Kim finds himself more tempted after having a secret meeting with Park, who even directly suggests to Kim that Kim should be the one to replace President Park.
What follows after that is not much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the modern Korean history, but director Woo Min-ho, who wrote the adapted screenplay along with Lee Ji-min, keeps things rolling as slowly building up tension and anxiety under the noirish period atmosphere of the film. In case of one of the key sequences unfolded in Paris, it is clearly reminiscent of those gray espionage films in the 1970s in terms of mood and style, and those impeccable suits of the main characters in the film will surely take you back to those melancholic criminal heroes of numerous classic French noir films including the ones directed by, yes, Jean-Pierre Melville. After all, President Park and his people were more or less than thugs just like many other dictators and their cronies around the world, and this stylish approach certainly makes sense.
However, the movie somehow lacks attitude and perspective while not giving me and other South Korean audiences any new insight on what inevitably happened among Kim, President Park, and a few others in their inner circle. As a result, the movie often merely feels like scratching the surface without delving much into what makes its characters tick, and its climactic part is not that dramatically impactful despite being well-executed on the whole.
Nevertheless, I was entertained by its mood, style, and performance to some degree. The production design by Cho Hwa-sung and Park Gyu-bin is top-notch in authentic period details, and cinematographer Go Rak-sun did a commendable job of filling the screen with cold and gloomy ambiance. In case of the main cast members, Lee Byung-hun is convincing in the gradual implosion behind his character’s stoic façade, and he is also supported well by a number of various performers including Lee Sung-min, Kwak Do-won, Lee Hee-joon, Kim So-jin, and Seo Hyun-woo, who is effective as the fictional version of a certain notorious real-life figure who is incidentally still well and alive to the chagrin of millions of South Korean people including me.
On the whole, “The Man Standing Next”, which was selected as the official submission of South Korea for Best International Feature Film Oscar several months ago, is better than Woo’s previous film “The Drug King” (2018) in more than one aspect, but its solemn genre exercise is less engaging compared to the barbed satire of Im Sang-soo’s “The President’s Last Bang” (2005), which is also about the assassination of President Park. I would rather recommend that film instead, but you may be interested in watching both of them, and I will not stop you from doing that.