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Lee Byung Hun (Actor) | Kwak Do Won (Actor) | Kim So Jin (Actor) | Lee Hee Joon (Actor)
This professional review refers to The Man Standing Next (DVD) (Korea Version)
One of the defining events of modern Korean political history, the assassination of president Park Chung Hee in 1979 was dramatized in detail in Im Sang Soo's The President's Last Bang. Fifteen years after that controversial film, Inside Men director Woo Min Ho covers the incident from another perspective with The Man Standing Next, based on a nonfiction novel about the most powerful figures in Park's regime that was serialized in a newspaper from 1990 to 1992. Woo reimagines the story of the assassination as a captivating John le Carré-esque spy drama about the feuds and betrayals that ultimately led to Kim Jae Gyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), committing his lethal coup d'état.
While The President's Last Bang mostly takes place on the night of the assassination, The Man Standing Next covers the 40-day period before the event. In Woo's partially fictionalized narrative, the film begins with former KCIA director Park Yong Gak (based on Kim Hyong Uk) testifying in the US Senate about human right abuses under the Park regime. Having served alongside Park Yong Gak in the army, Kim Gyu Pyeong (based on Kim Jae Gyu) finds himself in a precarious position as President Park begins to shift his trust to Gwak (Lee Hee Joon), Chief of Security Service and a man infamous for his short fuse.
After letting his ambitions get the better of him on The Drug King, Woo and his co-writer Lee Ji Min build a tight narrative for The Man Standing Next. With little surprise in the story – anyone can find out what happens with a quick read on Wikipedia – Woo frames the film as a slow-burn, no-nonsense character study about how Kim is pushed to the brink by pressure from the American government, his exiled former brother-in-arms and disagreements over how the government should handle a prolonged pro-democracy demonstration in Busan. The film takes its time to set up all the players in the story, but the viewers' patience pays off when the conflicts come to a head in the second half of the film.
As one can expect from the story, the film is carried by a mostly male cast. Superstar Lee Byung Hun (who also starred in Woo's Inside Men) gives a masterclass in controlled acting as the stoic KCIA chief. A man who uses his cold exterior as his defense mechanism, Kim is an intentionally enigmatic figure throughout, but Lee is also great at showing cracks in the façade, particularly in a fantastic confrontation scene between Kim and Gwak. Playing President Park as a paranoid, conniving and wickedly passive-aggressive power figure who treats his underlings like expendable pawns, Lee Sung Min is equally outstanding and engrossing to watch.
A toxic workplace drama set in a high-stakes environment, The Man Standing Next is both an antithesis and a great companion piece to The President's Last Bang. While Im finds very dark absurdist humor in his detailed depiction of the incident and its outcome, Woo goes for a serious examination of men corrupted by their own power and ego. Both films are equally compelling and essential for those who are interested in the mystery surrounding Park's assassination, but Woo's solid direction and his excellent cast should place The Man Standing Next on the top of your to-watch list.
by Kevin Ma