Already one of Filmbrain's favorites of 2005, and a hit at the Cannes, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang is getting a US release, thanks to the good folks at Kino. This suspense-comedy about the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee is also a brilliant political satire that ranks with the best of them, and is an absolute must-see. (Check out the trailer HERE.)
Filmbrain sat down and discussed the film with director Im when he was in town for the New York Film Festival a few weeks back. The following is an excerpt from that interview.
Filmbrain: Why did you choose such a contentious subject for your latest film?
Im Sang-soo: I was a schoolboy when Park Chung-hee was assassinated. My father was an anti-Park journalist, so he was very pleased when he heard about the assassination. The whole country was in mourning, but not my father. This is the kind of family I grew up in. Also, my high school was about two hundred meters from the house where the assassination occurred. I remember, on the morning after, seeing soldiers with rifles surrounding the house. It's an image that stayed with me for a long time, and over the years I read every document I could find about the incident. South Korea has only recently accomplished full freedom of expression, under the current regime. He [current President Roh Moo-hyun] has said that Park's assassination is the most important event in contemporary Korean history. So, I thought, why not?
FB: But even with full freedom of expression, you were still forced to remove the documentary footage that bookended the film.
ISS: That was not a case of censorship. A lawsuit was brought against the film by the son of Park Chung-hee. I believe political pressure influenced the judgment. Park's daughter [Park Geun-hye] is the leader of the opposition party, and a strong candidate for the next presidency. The current liberal regime is very weak. Large corporations like Samsung or Hyundai are the ones that really control the country. They came to power during the Park regime, and it's as if Park's ghost is still controlling Korea.
FB: How do you feel about the film in its current version?
ISS: With the documentary footage edited out, I feel as if you are seeing only half of my film.
FB: The film caused quite a bit of controversy in Korea, and there were those that claimed your depiction of Park was both unfair and inaccurate. Does this reaction surprise you?
ISS: No surprise at all. My film performed poorly at the box office in Korea. There are a few reasons: first, CJ Entertainment, the most powerful distributor in Korea, is a sister company of Samsung. They just abandoned the film. And though I have no proof, I believe Park Geun-hye and her many supporters organized a campaign on the internet against the film.
FB: In the film, KCIA Chief Kim calls President Park by his Japanese name right before he kills him. This seems to be the source of a lot of outrage.
ISS: (Laughs) There is no evidence of that ever occurring. I made it up, but felt I had to for symbolic reasons. Park was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria, hunting down members of the Korean independent army. This man became President! This is the most tragic thing in modern Korean history. So, symbolically he was Takaki Masao [Park's Japanese name]. I believe he was more Japanese than Korean. He adored Japanese culture and was strongly supported by the Japanese ultra-right wing.
FB: Was it your intention all along for the film to be a satire? It's not a common genre in South Korean cinema, is it?
ISS: No, not common at all. I think my film might be the first. I believe that satire only works if you have some sort of connection, or history with the subject. My father had no respect for the Park government, and I grew up with this belief as well. I strongly believe the co-writer and director of the film is my father. I'm his son after all.
FB: Given the tremendous detail around a piece of history that is perhaps not that well known outside of Korea, are you at all surprised by the film's international success?
ISS: No, not really. The essence of power is the same worldwide. When I finished my script, I watched the American TV series The West Wing, hoping to learn something about the current White House, but there was nothing. It's well written, and intelligent, but so politically correct! It's almost fantasy. But is the essence of Bush's regime closer to The West Wing or to my film?
FB: Do you imagine that your film will inspire or empower young directors to tackle other politically charged issues from Koreas past?
ISS: Hopefully. I think I broke some taboos with this film, but investors don't like this sort of thing, so well see.
FB: What about yourself? Will the controversy surrounding this film harm your chances in obtaining funding for future projects?
ISS: That's not clear yet. However, I don't have a good feeling about my next film, which is a love story, but with a political backdrop. As a result, investors are hesitating. If I can't get the funding, I can always do something low budget on HD. (Laughs.)
FB: Did you have Baek Yun-shik in mind for the role of KCIA Chief Kim when you wrote the script?
ISS: Absolutely. Working with him, and watching him deliver my lines....it was so perfect...I experienced something like an orgasm.
FB: Can you talk a bit about the music in the film? The tango theme is quite striking.
ISS: How did you feel about the music?
FB: I thought it was wonderful. It worked perfectly.
ISS: Interesting. Pierre Rissient [French film critic] complained about the music. The composer [Kim Hong-jib] decided that he wanted to use a third world music, and he wound up choosing a tango. Though the characters are mean, nasty guys, I wanted to shoot the film with a certain elegance. I learned how to create mean characters from Scorsese's Goodfellas, and learned how to shoot elegantly from Coppola's The Godfather. This style of shooting matches up beautifully with tango music.
FB: Can you talk a bit about the wonderful tracking shots in the film?
ISS: All credit belongs to the DP [Kim Woo-hyeong], who I worked with on my last film. We have a great working relationship, and we spent a lot of time discussing how we would shoot this film. We decided on the tracking shots during pre-production, but he handled all of them while shooting.
FB: At the very end of the film, a female narrator details the fate of all the characters. This is the woman we meet at the start of the film, who is trying to sell her daughter, correct?
ISS: First of all, many people in Korea were upset with the narration at the end. They found it too cynical, but I felt I had to do it that way. I needed the audience to sit there and listen to it. I didn't intend for people to make the connection to the mother character, but a critic in Korea spotted it. He felt that the mother was the worst, most despicable character of all, and that I couldn't resist letting her have the final say. (Laughs.)
FB: The all-seeing, all-knowing butler character -- straight out of a classic detective story -- it's almost iconic. You present him as being instrumental in the success of the assassination, and even choose to end the film not with a shot of Kim, but of the butler calmly eating a meal. Are his whereabouts still unknown?
ISS: Ah....my hidden hero! Nobody knows where he is, or if he is still alive, though he was much younger than his on-screen character. Hopefully, he saw my film. (Laughs.)
FB: All of your films tend to address both universal themes as well as issues specific to Korea. While some of the social commentary or criticism in A Good Lawyers Wife might escape the casual viewer, it's still an incredibly powerful film about the dissolution of a marriage. It's the same with The President's Last Bang. Is this intentional?
ISS: No, it just works out that way.
FB: Earlier, you mentioned your father, and the impact the assassination had on you as a child. In a way, the film can be seen as somewhat autobiographical, or at least very personal. Are there autobiographical elements in all your films?
ISS: Especially in A Good Lawyers Wife. (Laughs.) That's me, and that's my father again.
FB: Unlike other contemporary Korean directors who tend to revisit certain ideas and/or themes, no two films of yours are alike. In addition, there's usually a two to three year gap between your films. Is all that time spent in planning for the next feature?
ISS: Actually, I never studied film. I'm not a film maniac. I haven't even seen that many films. Park Chan-wook is known for his film knowledge, especially European film. Hong Sang-soo studied film in the US and France. But I don't have any interest in film itself. I just have something to say, and I choose to say it with film.