The Man Standing Next (Namsanui bujangdeul)
Korea (2020) Dir. Woo Min-ho
Power – everyone wants it but is it worth having? There are usually two things that make being in charge a hard job: that someone else wants your spot, and not everybody will like your decisions. And if your decisions prove unpopular, it may not be your enemies who will want you deposed from the top job.
October 26th 1979, KCIA Director Kim Pyu-kyeong (Lee Byung-hun) heads to the dining room of President Park (Lee Sung-Min) but not for a quiet dinner, per the loaded gun in his pocket. Forty days earlier in mid-September, former KCIA Director Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won) discredits President Park in a US court investigating Koreagate, ahead of the publication of his memoirs which contain incriminating details of Park’s corruption and dictatorship over Korea.
To prevent this, President Park sends his loyal KCIA director Kim to the US to secure the manuscript and shut Park up, except Park warns his old friend that sooner or later, the President will turn on him too if it means clinging to power, but Kim won’t hear of it. But as Kim tries to get the President to tone down his actions, Park’s true colours begin to show, losing favour to Chief of Security Gwak Sang-Cheon (Lee Hee-jun), who is intent on being Park’s next right hand man.
No, I didn’t make Koreagate up, it was a real scandal in the 1970s in which KCIA were accused of bribing US congressmen in order to gain political favour with them, ideally to reverse President Nixon’s decision to withdraw US troops from Korea. The assassination of President Park Chung-hee also happened, following his iron fist ruling that killed the popularity he once enjoyed for the economic boom he oversaw in the 60s.
At the start of The Man Standing Next, director Woo Min-ho runs a disclaimer to say that whilst this adaptation of the non-fiction novel Chiefs of Namsan by Kim Choong-Sik does stick to the facts, some creative liberties have been taken. This often puts a question mark over the level of veracity of the script, although it would seem the slight changes to the names is the chief indicator of this, mostly for Korean audiences I suspect.
Because this is based on fact, opening the film with Park announcing his intention to kill the President to his closest cohorts loses its spoiler status, as now the intrigue is in why Park must die. Judging by the garish outfit Yong-gak sports in the US court, there is no mistaking the 70s setting, with further aesthetic succour from the muted colour palette indicative of European cinema from this period.
Kim’s sartorial choice of a black suit gives nothing away, but fans of classic British sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo might have flashbacks to stoic Nazi Herr Flick from his serious face, slicked back hair and round glasses. Kim’s pallid complexion adds a ghostly aura to his cold, strategising mien, implying he is President Park’s trusted shadow fixer, the situation with Yong-gak a robust launching point to illustrate this, though he gets the job done as harmlessly as possible at first.
However, when Yong-gak drops a bombshell insinuating President Park receives financial support via Swiss offshore banks, he becomes a bigger problem and must be killed. Kim uses an excommunicated lobbyist Deborah Shim (Kim So-jin), the only female character, being coerced into helping trap Yong-sak who is now hiding in Paris – except Gwak has the same idea and dispatches his own team to kill Yong-sak.
Upon his return to Korea, Kim learns President Park’s office has been tapped, which Gwak blames on Kim’s incompetence. Meanwhile, the youth of Korea are rioting against Park’s stringent ruling and the President calls for military intervention, hoping any deaths incurred will send a message to future dissenters. Kim suggests a less hostile tactic only to be branded a traitor to the cause – the same cause Kim and Park fought for a decade earlier.
Whilst politic intrigue is usually a fascinating subject for me, I found the sluggish pacing of the first hour a detriment in getting into the story and following who is who. They may add a graphic when introducing a new character but, and this isn’t meant to be rude, their appearances aren’t always easily distinguishable, not helped by many scenes shot in dark offices. Thankfully, the second hour picks up once the rose coloured glasses slip from Kim’s nose and Park’s true ways are gradually exposed.
Slow burns in cinema tend to work if you can get into the groove the director has set so this is a case of me not being in tune with that. But, like earlier where I commended the visual period replication, I must extend this to Woo’s way of creating tense atmosphere often from very little, be it moody lighting or the internal frustration building inside one of the characters.
Lee Byung-hun is the most well known name here through his international exposure but many may find it hard to recognise as Kim. His usual sharp good looks have morphed into those of a darker, cold, purpose driven android, at least until the disappointment of being used by Park after years of loyalty hits home. The transformation is measured in revealing a more human side to this steely persona, though Kim remains a dangerous man regardless of his debatably justified motivations.
In reality, Kim Jae-gyu admitted to killing Park to restore democracy to Korea, and his punishment was execution by hanging. It was all for nothing sadly, as Park’s death led to another military uprising and more despotic misery for the country. Ironically, Park’s daughter Park Geun-hye became Korea’s 11th President in 2013 until she was impeached and convicted on corruption charges in 2017.
Despite not grabbing me with its convoluted first half, The Man Standing Next is a tidy affair others may get more from, offering non-Koreans an interesting dramatisation of a notorious and tragic moment in the country’s modern history.