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.


International trailer (English subtititles)

Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Nowhere to hide posterOne of Korea’s foremost visual stylists, Lee Myung-se’s work has often been under appreciated at the time of its release. His desire to experiment finds fertile ground in the intensely kinetic ode to the police procedural, Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Injeongsajeong bol Geos Eobsda). A tale of cops and robbers, Nowhere to Hide follows a cop who talks too much on the trail of a silent assassin who is, in fact, an expert at hiding in plain sight through the art of disguise. Moving quickly from one intense, beautifully choreographed set piece to the next, Lee draws inspiration from the crime-tinged tragedies of old Hollywood and beyond whilst embracing those of his home nation in the classic twin pairing of actors Ahn Sung-ki as the enigmatic assassin, and Park Joong-hoon as the bullheaded cop hot on his trail.

Lee opens in black and white with Inspector Woo (Park Joong-hoon) in full on gangster mode as he wanders through a ruined landscape, pausing only to tie his shoelace while the pulsing, punkish music continues in the background, before he walks in on an entire room of besuited gangsters and calmly sits down to introduce himself. Sometime later, Sungmin (Ahn Sung-ki), in sunshades and trench coat, patiently bides his time before committing a dramatic murder and making off with a mysterious briefcase.

What follows then is a game of cat and mouse as Woo chases the ghost of Sungmin through dingy back allies and neighbourhood dive bars, taking his more serious partner, Kim (Jang Dong-kun), whose more primary motivations include his family or more particularly his little girl, along for the ride. Woo lives only for his work, drawing more thrill from the chase than he is likely to admit. Through his pursuit of Sungmin, Woo draws closer to a side of himself he hoped to avoid, burying his natural rebelliousness in service of the law. We see him brutally interrogate suspects, even at one point trussing one up like a prize pig and suspending him between two desks in the middle of the police station. It is, in this sense, Woo who is left with “nowhere to hide”. As a young man, he had a violent streak which might well have led him into crime if his father had not pointed him towards the police, but he can no longer claim to be very much different than the quarry he pursues. His true nature has been laid bare by his opposing number.

Woo’s rage and unpredictable energy are tempered by Kim’s evenhandedness, but after a job goes wrong and Kim kills a suspect by mistake he starts to fall apart. Suddenly Woo cannot rely on Kim to save him from himself and then tragically fails to save Kim during another operation, leaving him open to serious injury. His quest is now as much one of vengeance and personal feeling as it is of justice.

Sungmin, by contrast, says not one word in the entirety of the film. A felt presence more than a seen one, he slips in and out of personas, escaping from the scene in various disguises as a figure more of legend than of reality. A close relationship with a bar hostess girlfriend is Woo’s way in to Sungmin’s world, correctly identifying a weakness and pressing it, pursuing a more concrete route to the centre of Sungmin’s existence than simply tracking him through the shady netherworld in which he lives.

The two men run from and mirror each other as pictures of action and stillness, resistance and urgency. Through a relentless pursuit of capture or escape, neither can evade the shadow of himself, each moving closer to their true selves as repressed elements surface and threaten to destroy the whole. Woo and Sungmin are each on a mutually destructive pursuit of the self as much as they are for their own, self defined goals.

Lee frames all of this within his characteristically ironic world view, painting the drama as comedy imbued with its own kind of cartoonish slapstick. Throwing in cinematic homages from a brief nod to Battleship Potemkin to an ending plucked straight out of The Third Man, Lee mixes freeze frames with an odd jump dissolve technique which lends his intensely beautiful choreography an impressionistic, fleeting quality. Two men chase the shadow of the other, engaged in a desperate game of hide and seek, but when the game is up neither may like what they see.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Robbery sequence (dialogue free)

The Suspect (용의자, Won Shin-yeon, 2013)

suspect posterNorth Koreans have become the go to bad guys recently, and so North Korean spies have become the instigators of fear and paranoia in many a contemporary political thriller. The Suspect (용의자, Yonguija), however, is quick to point the finger at a larger evil – personal greed, dodgy morals, and the all powerful reach of global corporations. Opting for a high octane action fest rather than a convoluted plot structure, Won’s approach is (mostly) an uncomplicated one as a wronged man pursues his revenge or redemption with no thought for his own future, only to be presented with the unexpected offering of one anyway alongside the equally unexpected bonus of exposing an international conspiracy.

Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo) is former top North Korean asset now defected to the South and working as a driver for an important CEO. His boss thinks he ought to just go home, but Ji has a mission – he’s looking for a former friend, also defected, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter as part of a wide ranging purge following the accession of Kim Jong-un. Taking pity on him, the CEO eventually gives him the address of his target, adding that he hopes Ji can learn to forgive him (which seems unlikely), but is assassinated by other agents that same night. Arriving at the scene too late, Ji finds himself framed for the killing and charged with taking care of a secret message also in the CEO’s possession at the time of his death. Teaming up with a documentary filmmaker, Ji is now on the run and determined to find his former friend turned mortal enemy before the authorities catch up with him whilst also trying to work out what to do with his boss’ coded message.

Family, debts of honour, and bonds between men are at the centre of this fast paced thriller as Ji attempts to navigate this ever changing conspiracy torn between friends turned enemies and enemies who may become friends. His main adversary is a government agent, Min (Park Hee-Soon), whom he previously encountered during a mission in Hong Kong during which he made the decision to spare Min’s life after catching sight of a photo of his wife and son in his wallet. Min, however, is less than grateful as the failed mission greatly damaged his career prospects and so he has a personal grudge with Ji which he hopes to exorcise through arresting him. On the other side, Ji is also on the hunt for his former training buddy, Lee (Kim Sung-Kyun), whom he believes to have been responsible for the death of his own wife and child though later discovers that perhaps they have all merely been pawns in a much larger game.

The larger game appears to include worldwide arms sales by turns frustrated and conducted by North Korean agents. The conspiracy, however, is very much home grown in terms of its South Korean genesis but makes clear the complicated relationship between the two territories which is very much open to abuse by those who have access to both sides. The big bad turns out not to be the totalitarian regime with its constant purges and rigid enforcement of its political power, but the greedy and venal, power hungry petty officials of the democratic regime working in concert with big business.

Won has obviously drawn inspiration from the first Bourne film, offering several blatant homages including a long car chase referencing The Italian Job by proxy. His shaky cam aesthetic is perhaps overworked, but the fight scenes are undoubtedly impressive, anchored by the astounding performance of unlikely action star Gong Yoo – hitherto known as a sensitive leading man and frequent romantic lead. Having piled on the pounds, Gong is a credible vengeful presence apparently providing many of his own stunts including a strangely overblown sequence which sees him rock climbing bare chested only to emerge panting and glistening next to the flapping North Korean flag. Nevertheless, his near silent performance is a masterclass of physical acting, adding a much needed emotional dimension to the otherwise straightforward script which leaves little time for character development in between its admittedly impressive set pieces. Overlong yet moving at a rip roaring pace, The Suspect is a surprisingly well photographed action fest which manages to add a degree of pathos to its closing scenes even if failing to completely earn it whilst engaging in a series of subtle political allegories.


International trailer (English subtitles)