The Man Standing Next (NC16)
Starring Lee Byung-Hun, Kwak Do-Won, Lee Sung-Min
Directed by Woo Min-Ho
The Man Standing Next. Strange title. Next to what? The toilet? The smoking bin? The water cooler?
Okay, I'm being a wisea**. The man, a top intelligence chief played by pretty boy Lee Byung-Hun, is standing next in line to be the president of South Korea. But he's a patriot so good and decent in the cesspool here, he doesn't want the job while others worship and besmirch it.
Boy, when you see this intense and intriguing snake pit of a political drama-thriller, you'd think that Korean government leaders and military top brass are all ruthless, murderous crooks. Not just mere wrongdoers. But outright despicable and corrupt criminals.
Imagine the head of the supreme intelligence agency of the nation assassinating the president of the country. The incredible thing is that this really happened in 1979 during the fearful dictatorial rule of President Park Chung-Hee (Lee Sung-Min from The Spy Gone North).
This tale recounts the tense 40 days of in-house skullduggery and international espionage which escalated out of control right up to the assassination carried out personally by the president's own spy chief.
I'm nominating this shooting-off-the-snake's-head-at-a-private-dinner sequence here for Best Assassination Scene Ever because it's simply riveting and utterly jaw-dropping for being an actual event. “When the nation goes haywire, we all die. We kill him tonight,” goes the cryptic order.
You've got to be ideally Korean, a conspiracy theorist, army buff or a sick coup d'etat enthusiast to fully soak in this film without being confused. It just goes straight into the proceedings as if everybody watching it knows Korean history by heart. But if you're shallow enough to see this crazy true story — well, more or less true — because this is the place where BTS hails from, this very serious flick is still pretty gripping.
You just need to pay attention. Because the devious manoeuvring, jostling and backstabbing are breathtakingly Machiavellian and quite hard to follow. Even shadows chase their own shadows here and competing factions actually have their own sneaky spies and loyal hitmen to eliminate their Korean rivals in elaborate kill-capades staged in even as far away as France.
Which means things are so murky you'll need to know this crucial pointer to wade through the convoluted power play. Among the inglorious bastards assembled, only Lee playing Kim Gyu Pyeong, the director of the formidable KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), has some morals and principles. Although even he isn't opposed to terminating someone he knows well when the need arises.
Back in the tumultuous 1970s, Kim's good friend, Park Yong Gak (Kwak Do-Won from The Wailing), an ex-KCIA director himself, flees to America and threatens to expose all the shady dealings of the Park government in a tell-all book, a move which turns the president demented with vengeful rage.
It puts current director Kim in a tough dilemma as he micro-manages this national-security problem to go away. He talks to his exiled colleague face-to-face in the US in deep stealth as a go-between, ala in a John le Carre novel.
Of course, things are simply too dirty and people too nefarious for treason to be resolved so easily. Wearing solemn spectacles and a sharp suit, Lee's Kim is the conflicted shining light amid the overall darkness.
Depicted in a very sympathetic manner here, he's the last honest powerful man in Korea who still naively believes in serving his country while the vile roosters are raiding the farm.
You know this because he becomes visibly sick when, after climbing like a monkey into a safehouse to personally eavesdrop on the president, he finds out that the man he's sworn utmost loyalty to wants him out of the way too. “I will always stand by you,” Kim vows to his big boss, a close friend and former comrade in arms who, drunk with greed and power, doesn't think twice about betraying that trust.
Every time the cruelly callous president says “You have my full support; do as you please”, he's giving the green light for someone to be tortured brutally or bumped off secretly.
Disposal methods include shoving a dead dude into a wood-cutting machine.
By the way, although President Park portrayed here is a real person, the other main characters are fictional names based on real officials.
Fortunately, the movie tells you who's who in what position since so many different Kims, Parks and Lees swirl in this unholy mess you'd likely to be confused all the way to the next coup.
Now, this film's director Woo Min Ho previously helmed another dirty-politics pic, 2015’s Inside Men. I'm actually concerned for his safety due to the plot's stark and unrelenting portrayal of pure chief executive evil with zero redeeming features.
Basically, the president is depicted as a traitorous SOB to the revolutionary cause.
He abandons the wisdom of his formerly trusted KCIA chief and instead embraces his shamelessly boot-licking head of security, Lieutenant-Colonel Gwak (Lee Hee Joon), who's a crass, scheming bully willing to massacre even his own citizens just to appease his boss.
“Killing one or two million people with tanks is nothing,” he brags about putting down a people's revolt brewing in the opposition stronghold of Busan. Man, I haven't seen very senior officials fight like schoolkids — Kim and Gwak literally draw guns — in a government building since John Bolton butted heads in the White House.
Anyway, I'm scared because what if diehard Park fanatics still lurk in the shadows today? It isn't too far-fetched since the assassinated prez was the father of the also-deposed former female president, Park Geun Hye. FYI, she herself is currently languishing in prison in a kinda traditional Korean fall-of-the-mighty merry-go-round.
The Man Standing Next suggests that the late Park was so rotten to the core that even the American CIA bugged him right in his office. Which gives Lee an opportunity to speak really good English with a lot of heft.
All the leads are spot-on good here. But Lee — recently seen in volcano-disaster flick, Ashfall — truly exudes star power alongside his authority despite being as glum as a funeral all through the film.
Just to see him cling on to futile hope in the goodness of man while everything conspires against this notion is an ironic thrill. “He'll step down slowly. I'll be helping him,” he proffers as the Last Great Fool about his gone-case heinous boss even as his own influence wanes.
The Man Standing Next may be too steeped in incomprehensible Korean history to truly connect with local viewers. But, luckily, The Man Standing Here is Lee Byung Hun.(***1/2)
Photo: Shaw Organisation