If you want to understand how one of South Korea’s presidents was assassinated by his own national director of intelligence, you must watch ‘The Man Standing Next’ starring A-list actor Lee Byung-hun. The movie is South Korea’s contender for the best international feature film in the upcoming Academy Awards.
In this period piece set in late 1970s Korea, Lee Byung-hun blunts his normally arresting looks by melting down into the character of a middle-aged director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency who eventually shoots and kills President Park in 1979. You see a man who is waiting for his friend, the president of Korea, to finally make good on his promise to bring freedom to the nation. They had after all pulled off a successful coup d’etat in 1961 to usher in a new world. However, Lee Byung-hun’s character sees Park turn increasingly dictatorial to the point where the nation’s constitution was amended to allow the president to control the legislature, courts and candidate for president (yes, the standards were changed so there would only be one man qualified… him).
When we see Lee Byung-hun in the movie, his character has become increasingly estranged from President Park while his opportunistic ‘yes man’ rival cockblocks him and brown noses to the president by feeding his cruelty. The breaking point in the movie seems to be a scene where the president plans to massacre his own citizens for rebelling against him, citing the success of Cambodia’s Pol Pot in suppressing dissent. Lee Byung-hun’s character, based on the real-life Kim Jae-gyu, moves forward with the shooting to stop the military invasion on its own citizens.
If you want to understand how Koreans have a complex mix of intense allegiance and melancholic shame regarding their nation, you have to watch this film. And let it be a warning. If someone like Donald Trump or someone more capable grabs hold of the nation’s institutions and turns them, could the dominos fall this way? President Park allegedly tried to assassinate the man who ran against him for president in 1971. The so-called ‘car accident’ failed.
Then in 1972, when Park changed the constitution to solidify his dictatorship, the rival presidential candidate fled to Japan for safety. But President Park allegedly sent the Korean CIA to Japan to kidnap him and throw him off a boat in the ocean. They got to the ocean and were about it do it. It ain’t fiction and it’s shown in the film too. But this man, Kim Dae-jung, was saved by Japanese naval forces and eventually went on to become the president of South Korea and win the Nobel Peace Prize.
But back to the movie. Lee Byung-hun is truly an actor’s actor. When he doesn’t speak, you still hear his thoughts. You see a man wrestling with loyalty to the friend and mission of his youth versus the current-day savagery of a power-hungry cabal willing to kill its own citizens. Can you imagine Donald Trump kidnapping Joe Biden and having him thrown off a boat? Could you picture the nation’s CIA director getting so fed up with the president’s abuse of power that he concludes that assassination would be the only solution to save democracy? That would be a rough U.S. adaptation of this movie.
Well, it’s not hard to see the potentiality if we can’t keep the republic. Remember when Trump sent military helicopters and National Guard units to try to quell protesters this year? And remember the blowback from the military community? Korea is still wrestling with the military’s denial of using helicopters to mow down civilians and protesters in 1980. It was called the Gwangju Massacre and the soldiers even raped women, including teenagers. If it ever escalates to a level as seen in Korea’s history, wouldn’t there eventually be one fatalistic American commando who would want to put an end to it all?
Remember when trump sent military helicopters
Let’s learn from history, please. And this lesson comes with amazing acting and superb props and costumes to take you back in time. You’ll also love the parts of the film set in 1970s Washington, DC with a scene stealing Korean spy who’s reminiscent of Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown. Apparently this movie was the highest grossing this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic. I saw it on Netflix. And I think you should too. It was my all-time favorite film of 2020.