The President’s Last Bang (Geuddae geusaramdeul)

Korea (2005) Dir. Sang-soo Im

On October 26th 1979 the president of South Korea, Park Chung-hee (Song Jae-Ho) is having dinner at the Blue House, with his personal bodyguard Cha Ji-cheol (Won-joong Jung), KCIA Director Kim Jae-kyu (Baek Yoon-sik), Chief Secretary Yang (Sang-ho Kim), a wannabe actress (Jo Eun-Ji) and popular enka singer Sim Soo-bong (Yoon-ah Kim). Enraged by the president’s poor attitude towards him, his dictatorial running of the country and the fact he was having a bad day, Kim decides to kill the President. He enlists the help of KCIA Chief Agent Ju (Suk-kyu Han) and a couple of subordinates and while the assassination goes off successfully, it is the aftermath which is where the problems truly begin.

Sang-soo Im’s controversial film is a fictitious look at the hours leading up to and following the real life assassination of the despotic South Korean president. It’s a darkly satirical and very bloody take on the situation which wasn’t so warmly received at the time, especially by Park’s son who disapproved of the way Park was portrayed as a cowardly, bullying womaniser and took the film to court. While it wasn’t banned, the film was subject to censorship with almost four minutes of documentary footage ordered to be cut. However this ruling was overturned a couple of years later and the missing footage was restored but its contentious reputation meant it wasn’t a box office hit and the distributors MK pictures were forced to pay a substantial compensation to Park’s family.

President Park came to power in 1961 after a military coup d’état and his run was largely dictatorial. Prior to the assassination there was a huge pro-democracy demonstration against Park’s ruling which was easily suppressed by the might of Park’s military. In the film, the widowed Park is shown living it up with boisterous and decadent parties with prostitutes while Director Kim and Agent Ju take care of the security as well as hiring the female talent for the parties and making sure the Park family don’t learn about this. At the fateful dinner Park is talking about how to deal with the protestors, lambasting Kim for being too soft and not taking more severe action against the objectors. With Agent Ju and the other men behind him, Kim puts his plan in motion, kicking things off by shooting the male dinner guests then Park, leaving the women alone, while Ju and his men take out the Park’s personal staff. Kim leaves the Blue House for Ju to organise the scene to look like an attack by North Korean terrorists while Kim meets with the Cabinet to stir up some political fear to cover his actions. Unfortunately, Chief Secretary Yang was hiding under the table and saw everything…

There is a lot of black humour here which is needed to help director Sang-soo Im fill in some of the gaps and take the edge of what was an infamous and pivotal moment in South Korean history. The falling apart of the aftermath sometimes teeters close to farcical moments with two younger agents on Kim’s team being left to look after the president’s body at the hospital and making a hash of it; or Ju’s run in with a jobsworth  military guard when trying to circumvent the official protocols to make his escape. But don’t be fooled – as satirical as this may be, this was a serious issue being covered and Im is keen to put across the frustration Kim was feeling towards his friend and leader by way of giving him some sort of motive for this actions (in real life this was never ascertained). To that end, it was the supposed damage to the image and character of President Park which his kids objected to the most when they took this to court. Go figure.

The actions of Kim and his associates plays out in a fairly mafia-esque style creating an somewhat feel to the film where some might see inflections of the likes of Goodfellas in it. Even with this external influence this is a Korean film through and through and for anyone who isn’t clued up with the country’s history, might be surprised to learn than the North and South weren’t always so different after all. The fallout from Park’s assassination was that the South gained democracy and Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, is now a prominent politician and potentially South Korea’s next president. Thankfully, she is nothing like her father.

The President’s Last Bang might not be the most accurate true life story you’ll ever see but as a slick, intelligent and well structured satirical thriller it’s well worth your time.