The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Woo Min-ho, 2020)

“You have my full support. Do as you please” so says the dictator, unambiguously manipulative but still somehow inspiring the loyalty of his many underlings perhaps still too wedded to an idea or at least an ideology to countenance moving against him. It turns out that nothing really changes and whether it’s feudal Joseon or the modern nation state, there is intrigue in the court. Neatly adopting the trappings of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller, Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Namsanui Bujangdeul) explores the events which led to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, father of the recently deposed president Park Geun-hye, by a member of his own security team. Many of the names have been changed and historical liberties taken, but the lesson seems to be that there is always a man standing next in readiness to inherit the throne. 

Our hero is KCIA chief Kim Gyu-peong (Lee Byung-hun), preparing as the film opens to halt Park’s (Lee Sung-min) increasing authoritarianism by assassinating him. A combination of the personal and the political Gyu-peong’s eventual epiphany is precipitated by an old friend’s “defection”. Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), former director of the KCIA which operated as a secret police force propping up Park Chung-hee’s oppressive regime, is giving testimony to an American inquiry into the so-called “Koreagate” scandal in which the KCIA is accused of bribing members of Congress to propagate favourable views of the Korean president and reverse Nixon’s decision to pull US troops from South Korea. Yong-gak uses the opportunity to denounce Park Chung-hee, planning to publish a memoir titled “Traitor of the Revolution” as an exposé of the inner workings of the KCIA.  

Somewhat ironically, Gye-peong and Yong-gak are old comrades who fought together in the “revolution” led by Park in the early 1960s following the ousting of corrupt autocrat Rhee Syngman. Yong-gak has become disillusioned with their cause and with Park himself, but this largely ignores the fact that Park’s revolution was mainly a repackaging of Japanese militarism, something signalled by an exchanged between Park and Gye-pyeong in Japanese to the effect that their days of revolution were their best. All of which makes Yong-gak’s wistful eulogising of a betrayed ideal along with his supposed admiration for democracy somewhat ironic. The essential motivator in their loss of faith, however, is also a militaristic one. They learn firstly that like any dictator Park has been embezzling from the state for years and has a collection of slush funds in Switzerland. That’s not the problem, the problem is that to manage them he’s been running a “private” intelligence service unknown even to the KCIA. They’ve been displaced, and their hurt is personal more than it is political. 

Yong-gak calls Park a traitor to their revolution and objects to the continuing human rights abuses for which he himself as a member of the KCIA has been directly responsible. All of this creates a series of crises for Gye-peong who is torn between loyalty to his old friend and Park while increasingly worried for his own safety. He begins to suspect that Gwak (Lee Hee-joon), Park’s security officer who had not fought with them in the revolution, may be the mysterious “Iago” figure Yong-gak had been warned about by the CIA. Increasingly sidelined, Gye-peong continues to do Park’s dirty work but draws attention to himself in his resistance towards the president’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric. Pro-democracy protests have already broken out in Busan in response to Park’s “unfair” treatment of the city’s governor and the opposition party. Gye-peong advises reinstating the governor with an apology. Gwak says frame the protestors as communists and Northern sympathisers and send in the tanks. “Cambodia killed three million people, is it such a big deal if we kill one or two million?” Gwak blurts out in a quip which seems to catch Park’s attention, the president now thinking himself untouchable. A militarist perhaps but an educated man who speaks good English and gets on well with the Americans, Gye-peong does not see the Khmer Rouge as a source of inspiration nor, like Yong-gak, does he think those values align with the ones he fought for bringing Park to power. 

Then again, even in the immediate chaos of the early ‘60s, it’s difficult to see how you could join that particular revolution without assuming it would come to this. Gye-peong has apparently been OK with human rights abuses and mass oppression, but has been quietly reassuring himself and others that Korea is changing, Park is preparing to move aside, and they are progressing towards democracy. In true conspiracy fashion, Woo paints Gye-peong as a tragic hero, unable to reconcile himself with the choices he has made or the radically different version of the world he is now seeing, but taking what is essentially a personal revenge in return for a slighting from a man to whom he’d given his life. Perhaps in a sense he thinks he’s saving Park from himself, or merely protecting the revolution he fought for from a cruel traitor, but in the end lacks the courage to carry it through. He thought Gwak was his Iago, but he missed the “man standing next” in the shadows. As the April Revolution led only to Park, so Park leads only to Chun and second military coup even more brutal than the last. Nothing really changes, but the next revolution will have to be one enacted by more peaceful means because the spectre of authoritarianism is eclipsed only in the freedom from fear.


The Man Standing Next is available to stream in the UK from June 25 and on download July 5 courtesy of Blue Finch Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Default (국가부도의 날, Choi Kook-hee, 2018)

Default poster 1The Korean economic miracle came to an abrupt halt in 1997. In an event the media labelled “the day of national humiliation”, the Korean government went to the IMF for a bailout in order to avoid bankruptcy. So, what went wrong? Choi Kook-hee’s Default (국가부도의 날, Gukga-budo-eui Nal) looks back at the fateful seven days before the country would go bust, asking serious questions about why it found itself in this position and why it chose to opt for external assistance rather than fix its own problems. The answer is, as always, a mix of disaster capitalism, incompetency, and a healthy disinterest in the lives of the less well off.

As if to signal its hubris, the Korea of 1997 is busy celebrating its accession to the OECD and emergence on the world stage as a major player, escaping post-war austerity once and for all. Young Koreans have embraced consumerism with gusto. Luxury goods and foreign travel are becoming increasingly popular with the government insisting everything is on the up and up. However, listeners to Son Sook’s Woman’s Era are telling a different story – cafes not getting customers, businesses going under, people not getting paid. With the Asian Financial Crisis mounting, the Korean Won is being hit hard and the government does not have the reserves to cover its debts. A high ranking Bank of Korea official, Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), has concluded that the nation has one week to find a solution before everything comes to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, self-interested merchant banker Yoon (Yoo Ah-in) has come to the same conclusion on his own but his aims are very different. Where Shi-hyun sees crisis, Yoon sees opportunity. He quits his job and starts calling up wealthy clients with an innovative pitch. Explaining to them that the country is about to go bust, he outlines a plan to short the government which will make them a lot of money though at the expense of those without who will be hung out to dry when it all goes to hell.

As Yoon tells his investors, the trouble is that the entirety of the modern Korean Economy is built on lies. An underling is tasked with explaining the crisis to the president in simple terms, only for Si-hyun to grimly suggest he tell him “we spent borrowed money like it was water hoping to get an extension and here we are”. Factory owner Gap-soo (Heo Joon-ho) is excited to receive a large order from a major department store, but put off when he realises that they intend to pay him with a promissory note. The department store CEO belittles his concerns, implying that he can’t be much of a player if he doesn’t know that’s how business is done these days. Gap-soo’s partner is all for it and so they sign, but when banks go bust promissory notes become worthless and they need ready cash to pay their staff and suppliers.

Si-hyun tries to make the case for saving the economy to protect the working classes but her advice falls on deaf ears. Often the only woman in the room, Si-hyun is dismissed as a “secretary” while the all male officials make a point of talking to her male assistant and accusing her of being “sentimental” when she points out that people will starve if they put their plan into action. The conclusion that she gradually comes to is that the crisis is an elaborate game being played by elites for their own gain at the expense of ordinary men and women all across the country. Odious finance ministers prioritise saving the Chaebols, warning their friends and cronies, while deliberately running down the clock so the country will have no other option than running to the IMF full in the knowledge that an IMF bailout comes with considerable strings which will vastly constrain their sovereignty and economic freedom – effectively handing control over to the Americans who will use it as an excuse to extend their own business interests by insisting on destructive labour reforms which will devastate the working classes.

Si-hyun’s exasperation leaves her making a last ditch effort to get the government to see sense only for the IMF negotiator (Vincent Cassel) to make her removal another of his red lines, her plain speaking instantly deemed “inappropriate”. Meanwhile, Yoon’s headlong descent into amoral profiteering begins to prick at his conscience even as he tries to justify his actions to himself. 20 years later, it might seem as if the crisis is over but its effects are very much still felt. Gap-soo’s factory may have survived, but it’s running on exploited foreign labour while the Chaebols continue to run rampant over the increasingly unequal Korean economy. None of the problems have been solved and another crisis is always on the horizon. Tense and infuriating, Default is a story of moral as well as financial bankruptcy which places the blame firmly on systemic corruption and the undue influence of self-interested elites while acknowledging that little has changed in the last 20 years leaving the little guy very much at the mercy of capricious Chaebol politics.


Default was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened as the next teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival on 20th May at Regent Street Cinema, 7pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Jung Byung-gil, 2012)

Confession of murder posterThe UK does not have a statute of limitations for criminal cases, only for civil ones, so if you want to be certain you’ve got away with murder you’ll need to wait until the very end and offer only a deathbed confession. In Korea, however, the statute of limitations on murder is (or was, at least, in 2012) 15 years so after that time you can even go on TV and tell everyone you’re a serial killer and all that will happen is that you’ll suddenly become a media darling beloved by a hundred giddy schools. Such is the premise behind Jung Byung-gil’s complicated mystery thriller Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Naega Salinbeomida) in which a grizzled detective and the bereaved relatives try to cope with their guilt and desire for revenge by enacting their own kind of justice on a self-confessed serial killer.

15 years ago, Detective Choi (Jung Jae-young) let a serial killer get away with only a scar on his cheek and the killer’s promise of reunion to show for it. 10 women are dead and Choi’s own fiancée missing presumed among the victims, and with the statute of limitations about to expire it appears that the killer will get away with his heinous crimes having successfully outlived justice. On the day the killer is officially off the hook, one of the victim’s sons commits suicide, further adding to Choi’s sense of inadequacy in being unable to bring the killer to justice within the time limit.

Two years on from the limitation passing, a handsome young man steps into the limelight with a book called “Confession of Murder” which claims to be an exposé on his reign of killing. Lee (Park Si-hoo) with his pop idol good looks and suave manner quickly becomes a media sensation despite the discomfort of some that he is profiting from the deaths of his innocent victims whom he has also robbed of justice even if he claims to be remorseful and to have reformed. Detective Choi has his doubts about the killer’s account and particularly about the possible 11th victim whose body has never been found.

Aside from the intrigue surrounding the true identity of the killer (or killers), Confession of Murder has a few difficult questions to ask about the nature of fame and the cult of celebrity. Lee has just confessed to a brutal series of unsolved killings of women, but thanks to his boy band good looks and impressive media marketing campaign he’s already amassed a fan club of adoring young girls including three rowdy high schoolers we first meet in Choi’s prison cells. Having escaped justice, Lee feels secure enough in his legal protections to crow not only about his crimes but in having gotten away with them so skilfully. His book becomes a best seller and his TV appearances hotly anticipated even if the fascination behind them maybe more ghoulish than intellectual or steeped in admiration.

What Lee exposes is a set of judicial double standards in which a man who has not paid for crimes he freely admits committing can be allowed to remain free and even use those same crimes to build a new life for himself by exploiting them for financial and social gains. The families of the bereaved, denied justice, seek their own – as does Choi even if he does it as a serving law enforcement officer. The lines between justice and revenge become ever blurred as the killer subverts the protections of the law as weapons against those who would seek to see that his crimes are properly served by it.

Meanwhile, Jung veers wildly between taught psychological thriller and absurd action drama in which an attempt to kidnap the killer is made by throwing poisonous snakes at him and then stealing him away in a fake ambulance which soon gives way to a lengthy motorway chase. The action sequences, often unexpected, are brilliantly choreographed set pieces of frenzied attack and retreat in which the outcome is perpetually uncertain. Uncertainty is certainly something Jung is adept at using as his narrative becomes ever more convoluted and intentions increasingly cloudy.

As much fun as it all is, Confession of Murder also has its degrees of poignancy in insisting on a need to deal with the unresolved past head on. Buried truths begin to fester and no amount of wilful forgetting will cure them, only the truth will do. Detective Choi faces a serious dilemma when faced with the limitations of a system to which he has devoted his life and which has already taken so much from him. If he transgresses, he will be judged by that same system but the judgement itself will also be a kind of affirmation that justice has finally been done and the case firmly closed.


Original trailer (English subtitles)