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Man Standing Next, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The President's Last Game"
4 stars

"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.

Lee Byung-Hun shoulders most of that. We know what Kim is going to do from the start, but he conveys the pain of seeing things fall apart nicely, along with the anguish of apparently still having a bit of a conscience after years of bad deeds. Min doesn't give Lee any big speeches about having started out trying to make South Korea a great nation twenty years earlier, but there's an angry stiffness to his movements and a look of pain on his face that suggests he's realizing that his loyalties to friend and country no longer align. There's also more than a bit of "ruthless survivor", lest the audience start liking this guy too much. His opposite number is not so much Kwak Do-Won or Lee Hee-Joon as the more flamboyant adversaries but Lee Sung-Min as President Park; there's a tremor in his hands that seems equal part age and fearfulness and an almost frightening blankness to his affect. Park doesn't seem to want anything but to hang on to his position, and even in that case, he doesn't seem to want that for any particular reason in the way dictators are often portrayed as gluttonous, delusional, or fond of cruelty. He may have once been that, but now he's just disconnected and protecting his position by reflex.

That's potentially dry, and Woo doesn't necessarily add much in the way of lurid color to it. Instead, he goes for a sleek professionalism, meticulously creating a version of 1979 that looks striking but not garish and shooting on location in Washington and Paris to add scale, but also finds way to use scale nicely in more intimate settings to show President Park's heavy hand, like how all the food on a dinner table seems pulled to his side by gravity, or making every time someone whispers in the President's ear feel like a snub of Kim personally. The film has two impressively-executed action pieces, and even if here is naturally more suspense in Gwak being chased through the French countryside, the inevitable showdown in a KCIA safehouse is excellent in large part for how Lee suggests both Kim running on adrenaline and in a bit of shock once he comes down from it.

These events have been the subject of Korean films before, perhaps most notably in Im Sang-Soo's "The President's Last Bang", which takes a more satirical approach to the material. Woo's more respectful, straightforward telling likely won't have the same impact internationally as Im's, but it does a nice job of navigating the space between historical recreation and entertainment well in its own way.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33486&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/14/20 06:49:56
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USA
  24-Jan-2020

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Min-ho Woo

Written by
  Min-ho Woo

Cast
  Byung-hun Lee
  Sung-min Lee
  Do-won Kwak
  Hee-Joon Lee
  So-jin Kim



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