With The President's Last Bang, South Korea continues its unbroken streak cranking out some of the most interesting, most stylish films in current world cinema. Swing by a well-stocked video store and you might catch just a sampling of titles that have come to America in the last year: Attack the Gas Station; My Sassy Girl; Shiri; 2009: Lost Memories; No Blood, No Tears; Phone; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring; Memento Mori; Blue Sky; A Tale of Two Sisters; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; Oldboy; 3-Iron; Untold Scandal; Save The Green Planet. Writer/director Im Sang-soo only adds to that impressive list with his satirical, snarky-title-and-all political thriller.
While Im's previous films (Girls' Night Out, Tears, A Good Lawyer's Wife) remain unavailable in America, The President's Last Bang serves as a fine introduction to this quietly confident filmmaker. Im's newest effort (which hit Korean theaters in 2005) has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. Although the film shares a certain black sense of humor, Im doesn't quite mirror Kubrick's slapstick take on war. (No pie fights here.) Instead, he crafts an absurdist, blood-spattered look at modern Korean history.
Pic takes us back to 1979, informing us in a short introduction that Gen. Park Cheung-Heui came to power in 1961 and ruled South Korea with near dictatorial power for 18 years. Until, of course, he was assassinated by one of his own security men. Taking place over the course of a single fateful night, the film rapidly introduces us to the major political players. There's Kim (Baek Yun-Shik), the dyspeptic chief of KCIA (basically the Korean secret service). There's Ju (Han Seok-gyu), a bullying (and often bullied) KCIA agent. There's the president's oily chief secretary (Gweon Byeong-gil) and his chubby chief bodyguard (Jeong Weon-jung). And, of course, there's the president himself (Song Jae-ho), a lazy sybarite with a taste for booze and hookers and an equal dislike for both communists and Americans. (Then-President Carter is dismissed as a “stupid peanut farmer.”)
Instead of guarding him, the president's staff of inept agents, hapless generals and baffled bystanders seems to spend most of its time rounding up girls and arranging fancy dinner parties. For this particular evening's entertainment, President Park has chosen a popular singer (Kim Yuan-ah) and a mouthy party girl (Jo Eun-ji) and is holed up at a KCIA safe house, downing whiskey and lecturing his bored staff on methods of dealing with student demonstrators (unsurprisingly, it involves tanks).
In a sudden fit of either democratic fervor or extreme job weariness (it's hard to tell which), Kim decides he's going to assassinate the president. He confides in a couple loyal KCIA agents, kicking off an impromptu coup that becomes increasingly bloody and unstable.
Tension mounts nicely, right up until the messy assassination and on into the even messier aftermath. Seems Kim has done little to shore up support among the country's military. Obviously, this was not one of the more well-thought-out coups in modern political history, and Im milks it for all its grim humor--stopping just short of the full-fledged Three Stooges affair this situation could have become. As the night wears on, everyone's destiny spins off in a different direction. (The assassination's primary witnesses, the singer and the hooker, end up forgotten about and settle for getting drunk in a bedroom.) A simple narrative device at film's end informs us of everyone's final fate.
The film's conspiratorial story, rapid pace and unfamiliar actors make it a bit hard to follow at times. It takes some serious attention to keep the players sorted out. Still, Im's sharp, Tarantino-esque cinematography (all black shadows, crisp suits and bloody reds) keeps viewers' eyes riveted to the screen at all times.
Believe it or not, Im's film was actually condemned by Park's daughter, now head of the Korean opposition party, for painting a not-so-sympathetic portrait of the late leader. Though it's unlikely to strike quite as many political chords here in America, The President's Last Bang is sure to find a small but sympathetic audience of observers who like their politics spiked with a little blood and a splash of sardonic humor.
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