South Korean film “Kingmaker” fails to enlighten or surprise or excite me as a fictional tale loosely inspired by the real-life story of a number of South Korean political figures in the 1960-70s. I guess the movie changes their names probably for more fictional freedom, but I and many other South Korean audiences can easily recognize them from their fictional counterparts in the film nonetheless, and it is really a shame that the movie simply uses their fascinating real-life political drama as the mere ground for another indistinctive local flick mostly obsessed with male bonding among men in black suit (Well, how can possibly current South Korean cinema live without them?).
At the beginning, we are introduced to Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun), and the opening part of the film shows us how this seemingly plain but smart dude becomes the unofficial campaign strategist of a prominent politician named Kim Woon-beom (Sol Kyung-gu), who is basically the fictional version of Kim Dae-jung. Having observed Kim’s rising political career for a while, Seo comes to believe that Kim is the one who can really bring more changes into South Korea, so he writes a personal letter to Kim, but it turns out that he needs to do a bit more for drawing Kim’s attention. When he later comes to Kim’s office for himself, nobody pays any particular attention to him, but his earnest efforts come to draw Kim’s attention, and Seo soon begins to show his considerable brilliance as a campaign strategist.
Seo’s wily tactics turn out to be exactly what Kim needs right now. After his military coup in 1961, the incumbent president of South Korea, who is indubitably the fictional version of President Park Chung-hee, and his party are certainly quite willing to maintain their power as long as possible, and they are already ready to suppress Kim and his opposing party more. For preventing Kim’s another victory in the upcoming congress election, the President’s party and his government do not hesitate to use a number of dirty and nasty tactics, and Seo is fully prepared to do some counterattacks which are also questionable to say the least but effective nonetheless. During one amusing sequence, Seo and his campaigners cunningly utilize their opponent’s bribery tactic for their own benefit, and Kim does not interfere much with that and Seo’s many other shady tactics, though there comes a point where Kim also has to go a bit further for boldly defending his campaign in public.
While Kim keeps advancing with more political prominence thanks to him, Seo comes to yearn for more attention and recognition, but both Seo and Kim know too well that is not that good for them for now. As a guy who was born in North Korea before the Korean War just like his wife, Seo can be easily labeled as a communist or a North Korean sympathizer by the President and his governing party, and that can surely lead to a considerable damage to what he and Kim have accomplished during last several years.
In the meantime, things become more complicated when the next presidential election is approaching. Although nearly everyone in South Korea expects that the current leader of Kim’s party is going to compete with the incumbent president just because of his longtime status as one of the prominent elders in the party, but Kim and certain two other equally prominent congressmen (One of them is clearly based on Kim Young-sam, by the way) have some other idea. Although they are relatively younger members of their party as being just fortyish, they all are eager to come forward for becoming the candidate instead of their leader, and their youthful and energetic public images can be a major asset for all of them.
What follows next is a series of political maneuvers which keep everyone in the party on edge. Lots of congressmen, who incidentally all wear black suits and consequently often look like the extras of South Korean gangster flicks, often sway back and forth in groups, and Seo is certainly ready to play more than one side for Kim’s victory. As usual, he does not flinch at all from manipulating several different factions in the party, and he does come to deliver a success to Kim as usual, but then he and Kim come to clash more with each other when they are about to move onto the presidential election. While Seo thinks victory must be achieved by any means necessary, Kim has a very different opinion, and the situation becomes more strained after one certain serious incident.
Around that narrative point, we are supposed to care more about these two main characters’ increasingly problematic relationship, but the screenplay by director Byun Sung-hyun and his co-writer Kim Min-soo does not have much substance in terms of story and characters. While their respective character arcs are utterly flat and predictable as inherently limited by the course of the modern South Korean history, Seo and Kim are clichéd archetypes filled only with ideas and attitudes instead of real human depth and insight, and this aspect is further exacerbated by how cartoonish many of other characters in the film are. For example, one certain character simply seems to exist only for objecting to whatever Seo suggests, and I also cannot help but notice how a few female characters in the story are usually more or less than background details unless they are allowed to function as the obligatory voice of common sense a few times. After recently watching two South Korean documentaries “Sewing Sisters” (2020) and “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” (2019), I was reminded more of why many female narratives hidden inside the modern South Korean history should be illuminated more than before, and “Kingmaker” looks incorrigibly regressive to me in comparison.
The two lead performers do try as much as possible, but they are mostly on autopilot mode in my trivial opinion. Sol Kyung-gu, who previously collaborated with Byun in “The Merciless” (2017), has several big moments to chew, and Lee Sun-kyun, who has been known more to audiences outside South Korea thanks to Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), looks believable as the smartest person in the room, but the movie somehow fails to generate much chemistry between their characters while also failing to inject real human feelings into their characters’ relationship. In case of the other main cast members including Kim Young-ho and Park In-hwan, they do not have much to do except filling their respective spots as demanded, and most of them are regrettably wasted due to their mediocre caricature roles.
Although it is a fairly competent product, “Kingmaker” is dissatisfying in many aspects including story and characters, and its failure to entertain and motivate me is all the more disappointing because of how lousy, pathetic, and, above all, pernicious most of the candidates for the upcoming South Korean presidential election have been. The movie lazily looks back at the past through another banal and tiresome case of bromance without anything new to tell for our present, and I doubt whether the movie can lead to any change in the eventual outcome of the upcoming election in next month.