Language – Korean.
Director – Min-ho Woo.
Writer – Ji-min Lee, Min-ho Woo.
Cast – Lee Byung-Hun, Sung-min Lee, Do-won Kwak
Political thrillers are few and far in-between, so it’s always interesting whenever one comes out and is lauded in the award circuits. The Man Standing Next directed by Woo Min-Ho, and the lead role played by South Korean heartthrob Lee Byung-Hun, is a methodical approach to tracing the chain of events that led to President Park’s assassination and the varied motivations of the instigators.
The setting is 1978 South Korea; in contrast to the prosperous developed-democracy image the nation enjoys now, was a Military Dictatorship masquerading as Presidential rule. The movie opens with the murder of President Park, de-facto dictator of South Korea and works backward to show the key transgressions that led to it.
Korea’s division was a product of the cold war, and the peninsula which only knew feudal role till then was divided into two with one part thrust into neoliberal democratic rule propped up by the Yankees.
Democracies that are born overnight, that manifest as a geopolitical interest of a larger and stronger country rarely survive. President Park (military leader turned President after staging a coup) wields divine unquestionable authority in every matter, and his premier intelligence agency KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), works both as shield and spear, protecting him from external and internal threats, covertly and preemptively.
The protagonist is Kim Gyu-pyeong, KCIA’s director. Kim is currently preoccupied with stopping the previous KCIA director, who has defected and is now in the U.S threatening to expose President Park’s corruption and crimes against his own people. Kim and the ex-director make contact, where the ex-director informs him about the existence of “Iago”, a secret organization with authority that surpasses even KCIA, are the ones really pulling the strings. Director Kim is disturbed and taken aback by this, reluctant to believe President Park would play him for a fool and this sows the seeds of doubt against his leader, which sets him on a collision course later against the President.
This is my first Win-Hoo movie but there is no doubt in my mind that he is an absolute master of his craft. Subtlety is often quoted as a distinguishing trait between great and mediocre directors, and Win Hoo employs it here to great effect. Every scene’s composition carefully relays little details, that over the course of the movie builds up the characters and atmosphere. Korean directors seem to have a penchant for communicating themes though clever, unconventional framing and lighting (Parasite and Oldboy come to mind) , the characters here are always in an elevated state, always on guard and an eclectic choice in framing and lighting is used to convey an air of subterfuge and betrayal perpetually waiting to happen, seemingly to bring about the doom of our characters.
Lee’s performance as the lead, is a battle of attrition. Little by little, as the plot unfolds, new players are unveiled, alliances shift and the country becomes increasingly unstable. Lee has to portray a man who started out in control, resilient and ready to take on anything who, by in the end resorts to desperate reprehensible violence. Lee accomplishes this by letting the tension and anxiety simmer in his face, gradually building it up which explodes with a mix of passion and madness towards the finale of the movie. The rest of the cast are comprised of Korean veterans who effortlessly render the performance required from them.
We know Park is going to be assassinated at the end, yet as we see the machinations of the various players involved, the multitude of different paths available to them, one can’t help be awash with cynicism, in the end, a dictator chose to cling onto power, for whatever reason, be it megalomania or fear and that resulted in unwarranted bloodshed. No one dared to act until it was too late.
The Man Standing next is a sobering account, told in granular detail, on how power structures without accountability inevitably corrupt themselves, how those at the top slowly let their positions envelop them, imbuing them with a false sense of infallibility. Of course, no one is infallible and people eventually fail; but when governments fail, its ordinary people who are left to pick up the pieces.
Verdict : 6/7 Stars.
- Official submission of South Korea for the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category of the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021.
- Based on a true story.