South Korea’s submission for Best International Film at the 2021 Academy Awards, following their iconic victory last year with Bong Joon Ho’s notorious Parasite, follows the series of events in the late 70s where leaked information on corruption in the Korean government and its President (coined ‘Koreagate’), led to the subsequent assassination of that very same President. The film, while it seems (to a Western eye, it’s important to note) mostly true to the facts, lacks creativity in its craft and ends up a rather mediocre — and at times difficult to follow — political drama.
It’s 1979, and in 40 days the (not-so-fairly) elected President of South Korea, Park Chung Hee (Lee Sung Min) will be assassinated. The former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Service (the KCIA), the exiled Park Yong Yak (Kwak Do Won), has just testified before the US Congress, revealing a series of obscure and illegal operations by the Korean government and openly condemning the Korean President. The current director of the KCIA, Kim Gyu Pyeong (Lee Byung Hun), is tasked with subduing the fallout of Koreagate, but as stifling tensions mount and new information emerges, Gyu Pyeong finds his motivations faltering — and his ultimate goal shifting.
Not being overly familiar with the history going in makes The Man Standing Next seem a bit of a mess. The story takes place across three continents (predominantly using Seoul, Washington D.C. and Paris as the main stages), with characters jumping between them with little pause. We might be provided with useful place and time titles, as well as documentary-style name and role subtitles, but it’s still hard to keep up with the whirlwind of information. Biographical political thrillers are notoriously tricky little things; you have to adapt something that is largely people talking into a visual cinematic format, and distil endless contexts of cultural significance, political tensions between nations, and individual personalities in positions of power, into an understandable, linear narrative. The Man Standing Next doesn’t quite manage it.
Political manoeuvring and strategy are complicated and hard to illustrate at the best of times — if you look at the actual history (which, stated at the beginning of the film, was followed as faithfully as possible, though inevitably with some creative license), the series of events director Woo Min Ho follows in his film is far from simple. But the film could really have benefited from a few more drops of that creative license to lead us as an audience through the numerous converging events that led to the assassination of a President. Though laced with realism, from a storytelling perspective the individual scenes feel like a collection of puzzle pieces left inelegantly scattered; you know they make a whole, but it’s not been solved by the filmmaker for you to see the bigger picture.
The ‘whole’ is shown in fragments on a smaller scale, making it immediately apparent how people, specifically Gyu Pyeong, are being used as pawns in a much larger political agenda. Gyu Pyeong is the head of the KCIA, a far from low position of power, but he is entirely at the mercy of his President, even the President’s head of security (Lee Hee Joon), as well as the foreign agents ready to withdraw all support from him and his country if he doesn’t do exactly what they want. Lee Byung Hun (a prominent actor in his homeland territory, as well as recognised for his roles in American films like G.I. Joe and Terminator: Genisys) is the key to making the smaller scale tick. He humanises the twisting tensions until you care more about his integrity than anything that might be happening on that bigger stage, which is perhaps the film’s downfall.
Without going too far into spoiler territory (though this is history, you can look up exactly how it all ends), the conclusion to the film overlooks perhaps the strongest element of its story that has been sucking the audience in the whole time: the human element. This story isn’t just about reaching the President’s event of death; we want to see our questionable ‘hero’ one last time for some closure on what the events really meant, even if only personally to him. The film ends with real-life recordings of the trail following the assassination, and the perhaps two minutes of screen-time is the most moving of the whole two hours. It seems that perhaps the melodrama of a significant political moment in South Korea’s history, and thus its attempted ‘epicness’, may have ultimately failed the film and its actors.
The Man Standing Next it out in Virtual Cinemas (including Curzon Home Cinema) from 25th June, and available on Digital Download from 5th July
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.