Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Man Standing Next

Huh. I remember this story having more in the way of prostitutes and black comedy in The President's Last Bang (which is apparently not available to watch in high definition, which somehow boggles my mind). Might have to check that one out again.

Unfortunately, it's pretty much too late for folks in Boston to check this one out theatrically, as its last screening at Boston Common is right about…. now. An underappreciated consequence of every movie having night-before screenings rather than just the big events is that you can't really do last-chance Thursday nights any more, especially a bummer since I had trouble squeezing this one in. Partly my own fault - I had stuff I wanted to see at the sci-fi film festival and HFA over the weekend, and felt kind of lousy on Tuesday, but on Monday it looks like AMC cancelled the 6:45pm show in order to fit an extra screening of Parasite in after its Oscar victories, which is fair, although there's a bit of irony in those wins actually making it more difficult to see a South Korean film here!

Even with that taken into account, this seemed a little cursed - I got to the ticket kiosk and it the only printed out half a stub before crapping out, and then the snacks I'd pre-ordered just weren't ready when I got there. The guy at the concession stand was cool when he saw the mistake, giving me a LOT of corn dog bites and making sure I knew they were willing to give me some extra candy or something, but it turned out to be a very good thing for me last night that they stick twenty minutes of previews before their movies.

Namsan ui bujangdeul (The Man Standing Next)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

The Man Standing Next is a pretty fair example of a movie that takes the known facts of recent history and stitches them together in the way that most resembles a thriller. The suspense comes as much from the craft as the pieces of that history where one doesn't know the exact details, meaning the most exciting set piece is in the middle rather than the climax. There's no mystery for many watching the film in South Korea, but at least some tension.

After a brief flash-forward to 25 October 1979, the film rolls the clock back 40 days to show Park Yong-Gak, the former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency giving testimony before the United States Congress about the corruption and autocracy prevalent in their supposedly-democratic ally. He also announces plans to publish a memoir, incensing President Park (Lee Sung-Min), who dispatches current KCIA head Kim Kyu-Pyeong (Lee Byung-Hun) to get his predecessor under control. Kim returns with the manuscript and a warning, that the American CIA is tracking a figure they call "Iago" who secretly controls a large faction of the agency. Could that be Gwak Sang-Cheon (Lee Hee-Joon), the head of the President's personal security who seems far too much of a hot-head to be any kind of secret mastermind?

(Note that while the events of the film map fairly closely to actual history and real people, most of the names have been changed.)

This story ends with President Park's assassination, and whether Gwak's testimony in Washington set events in motion or was just one of many examples of how an institution that had rotted from the inside finally falls apart is treated as something of fairly minor concern. Instead, writer/director Woo Min-Ho focuses on the process of the collapse - the increasing paranoia, the machinations that grow more complex and dangerous to what seems like little purpose, and the gradual realization by Kim that what he's doing has drifted far from public service. Both the outside forces at play and the factors in Park's fall that derive from his own personality are visible mostly on the edges of the film - at a certain point, Woo suggests, both dictatorship and the forces of international politics are machines that my run slow but are are only stopped when the larger one crushes the smaller.

Full review on EFilmCritic

No comments: