Regular readers of this site might recall how Im Sang-soo's last film, 2003's A Good Lawyer's Wife, reduced Filmbrain to a bowl of quivering, whimpering jelly. It's an incredibly powerful film that still manages to leave him weak in the knees, even after multiple viewings (and there have been many!) Naturally then, it was with great anticipation that Filmbrain awaited Im's follow-up. Well, it's arrived, and has turned out to be one of the most controversial films out of South Korea in some time -- a political satire that easily ranks among the best of the genre.
The President's Last Bang is an unabashedly leftist take on a dark period in Korea's history. Set (almost) entirely on the day of President Park Chung Hee's assassination in 1979, the film is an out and out attack on his regime, and paints the former president as a drunken lech with an unhealthy obsession with the Japanese. A (very) brief bit of history: the eighteen years of Parks's military dictatorship was a period where the rich got richer (especially corporations) and human rights violations soared. Torture was not uncommon, and it was all done in the name of fighting communism. Horrible labor laws were enacted that resulted in a large percentage of the population earning sub-standard wages, and corruption abounded in all areas of the regime. In 1979, Kim Jae-kyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), assassinated President Park in order to "restore liberal democracy without any self-interest or desire to seize power." (Quote taken from his trial.)
The film was somewhat of a scandal in Korea, and in an unprecedented move (in recent years, at least) Im was forced by the courts to remove documentary footage that bookended the film, with their rationale being that people might not be able to discern truth from fiction. (Park's son was instrumental in having the footage removed.) It was responsible for opening up old debates and arguments between the right wing, who view Park as a hero who successfully fought Communism and created an economic miracle, and the left who cite the nearly endless civil- and human-rights violations that took place while he was in power.
Yet if you put politics aside for a moment and consider The President's Last Bang simply as film qua film, you're left with an almost flawless work -- one where every element comes together in a cinematic harmony that is all too rare. From Kim Woo-hyeong's cinematography, with its warm brown tones and breathtaking tracking shots, to Kim Hong-jib's lush score, which sounds like a cross between Astor Piazzolla and Ryuichi Sakamoto, the film is a feast for the eyes and ears. Im once again proves that he is a tremendous director of actors, and the performance by Baek Yun-shik as KCIA Director Kim (recently seen as the abducted and tortured businessman in Save the Green Planet) is every bit as remarkable as Moon So-ri's in A Good Lawyer's Wife. Told primarily from his perspective, we sense his weariness from the opening moments, but Im portrays him neither as hero nor brilliant political strategist -- his decision to kill Park is a spur-of-the-moment decision (and one of the film's funnier moments) and his slow burn up to that point is a wonder to behold. One memorable scene has Kim sitting in the garden of the President's pleasure palace at sunset, quietly having tea as he hears of a plan to raze the universities in order to quell the student uprisings. The beauty and serenity of the scene contrasted with the flippancy of the minister who champions the idea is the kind of absurdity found throughout the film.
Im's magnificent screenplay also includes some richly developed supporting characters, including a tough-talking, gum-chewing KCIA agent (Shiri's Han Suk-gyu, in perhaps his best performance), a thug for a security chief, and the iconic ever-present, all-seeing and knowing butler. Not simply comic relief or filler, they are all essential elements in re-creating the mad world of the Park regime.
The humor is decidedly black, and razor-sharp throughout, but is distributed in very controlled doses, and often arrives at unexpected moments -- during a lengthy tracking shot of people being held in prison cells we see a man being tortured for owning a Picasso (he was a communist after all); or a shot of high-school students wondering if they are allowed to cross the street while the national anthem is playing. However, the controversy surrounding the film has less to do with the humor than it does with the scathing portrayal of Park and his henchmen as degenerates who have nothing but contempt for the average Korean citizen. Most offensive to some was Im's emphasis on Park's adoration of Japan, but there's a great deal of truth to it. Park, who began his military career in the Japanese army, often spoke Japanese, and fancied himself a modern-day samurai. He worshiped the Meiji era, and on the night of the assassination, he is shown getting drunk with a few of his ministers and two young actresses, one of whom specializes in singing Japanese enka. Im skillfully frames most of this sequence like something out of a period Kurosawa film -- plenty of low angles and wide, centered shots through doorways.
The second half of the film concerns the events that take place after the assassination, and it is here that the film begins to resemble a more classic political satire, though it's no less perfect than everything that comes before it. Amidst the chaos of those first few hours after the assassination, the focus still remains on Kim, though Im isn't interested in romanticizing the character, nor does he pour on the adulation. (Kim had plenty of blood on his hands even before the assassination.) Instead, he becomes a somewhat tragic anti-hero, and the film's rather abrupt ending avoids any attempt at interpretation. At the same time, the farcical nature of the film provides Im with a certain distance from the actual events.
One of the few films to already grace Filmbrain's "Best of 2005" list, The President's Last Bang is a triumph of acting and directing that allows Im Sang-soo to rub shoulders with the likes of Kubrick, Mamet and Altman, and a cutting satire that works even if one is limited to a rudimentary understanding of the events portrayed. Filmbrain can only pray that this finds US distribution, but it seems unlikely.