President's Last Bang, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/08/06 00:56:59

"History is stranger than fiction."
5 stars (Awesome)

In October, 1979, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency assassinated President Park Chun-hee. This is a matter of historical fact, but Im Sang-soo isn't interested in delivering a dry lecture. So he makes "The President's Last Bang" a comedy. After all, most Koreans know the names and events; what Im does is provide surprising motivations and highlight how an act this audacious will have moments a morbid humor.

President Park, we're informed, has been in office for eighteen years, and though the fiction of democracy is maintained via an opposition party, he is a venal and corrupt dictator. Idle and arrogant in his power, he decides to have a "meeting" (more of a party) at a KCIA safe house. In attendance will be the President, Chief Bodyguard Cha (Jeong Won-jung), Chief Secretary Yang (Kwun Byung-gil), two young and pretty women, and KCIA chief Kim (Baek Yun-shik). After a series of particularly ugly comments by Cha, Kim excuses himself to speak with one Chief Agent Ju (Han Suk-kyu): "We do it tonight." What about...? "The President is the primary target. Killing Cha is just a bonus."

Bang is a comedy, and an action thriller, but there's no mistaking what writer/director Im thinks of this administration: It abused power at every level, from repressing student demonstrations to intimidating prostitutes. It's telling that despite the arrogance of the people in power, they're also insecure, speaking in Japanese when they want to impress someone. Soon after we first meet Kim, we see him exhale with his hand over his nose and mouth, saying he can smell the rot within (his doctor is telling him to retire and enjoy what time he has left). In real life, Kim's motive was more likely a coup than altruism, but equating the cancer devouring Kim and the corruption in his country too good a metaphor to pass up.

Baek's performance as Kim is the one that anchors the film, and it's excellent. He makes the director of a totalitarian regime's spy service a sympathetic character; maybe age and illness has mellowed him, or given him a moment of clarity. Early in the film, when he's interacting with other members of the administration, we get the impression that he's being very careful with his words, and as the dinner party progresses, he does a good job of revealing his increasing disdain to the audience without necessarily making us think he'd tip the other characters off. He sells grimly comic situations, such as looking for another gun to finish off the man crawling toward him.

Just as interesting is Han as Agent Ju. We're set up to believe he's a monster, as he browbeats a young woman and her mother awkwardly trying to blackmail someone in the administration, but as the film goes on, he becomes more nuanced. He's got a smaller world-view than Kim, less worried about principles like democracy than providing for his family. He worries about coming out on the other side alive the most, but is also truly vexed by what to do with the two college-aged girls who witness everything; his face and body language tell us that while he has no issue with killing the President or his advisors, he does have lines he does not want to cross.

The rest of the cast is strong, too. Song Jae-ho plays President Park as thoroughly slimy if short of rubbing his hands with evil. There's no concern for anyone else to him, and little but contempt for the outside world. Jeong Won-jung goes a bit over-the-top as a bully, but it fits; he's never had to be a politician like Park and thus has no issues with not just abusing power, but abusing it in a crude fashion. Kwun Byung-gil is a bit more of a moderating presence as Yang; he knows that part of his job is the be "the President's drinking buddy", and his measured delivery makes us wonder if he might eventually be the voice of reason. A different perspective is provided by Cho Sang-gun as Shim, the house's heavy old butler and caretaker who sees everything but stays aloof.

Im handles all of the film's facets exceptionally well. The action scenes are fast-paced and easy to follow; they are as tense as any you'll see and aren't derailed by the jokes - the crazy situations act add zing rather than decrease tension. The comedy is dark, and it must have been jarring initially to see Park and company portrayed as not just reprehensible, but also foolish. One tends to think of a dictator as a monster, rather than a buffoon, and the idea that the people in charge of an entire country are little more than horny asshats or that history can turn because of a drunken offensive comment at dinner is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious; and the two contradictory reactions enhance each other.

Korea had a crazy twentieth century, but it's certainly making for some great movies in the twenty-first.

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