Imagine if someone made a film about a political assassination, something on the order of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, but injected irreverence and black comedy to make it more like M*A*S*H than JFK. A movie like that would most likely flame out horrendously in American theaters and be savaged for being in “bad taste”, but would later garner a cult audience on video for those smart enough to not take it personally.
What I have described is more or less the case with Sang-soo Im’s The President’s Last Bang. His film is a funny, blackly comic and sometimes downright snide treatment of one of South Korea’s touchiest political issues—the assassination of President Chun-hee Park by one of his own trusted aides. It reminded me, in a good way, of two other Korean films I’ve seen recently that mixed politics and black humor: Nowhere to Hide and Memories of Murder. All three are ultimately serious films, but they take the long way around to get to their real subjects because a more direct route would be like cheating.
Park was one of South Korea’s more famed presidents, not only because he modernized the country’s economy and industries (it’s hard to think of South Korea being the way it is now without him), but did so by installing himself as a dictator and crushing all dissent. To frame this fact, Bang was originally to open with stock footage of police suppressing campus riots and putting down demonstrators—but Park’s own son threatened to sue the filmmakers for including this material, claiming that it would “confuse” people into thinking the film was fact and not a reconstructive fiction. Fair enough; I said roughly the same thing about Black Sun, and all the squealing about Bang only seems to have drawn that much more attention to its genuine qualities.
The film concentrates on an inner-circle dissenter—the head of the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), Jae-gyu Kim, a psychologically bludgeoned man who has grown sick and tired of being used. Instead of sending his men to route out agents from the Communist North, they’re scouting for women to keep Park company. “Why should the KCIA take care of shit like this? That’s a job for the president’s security detail,” he grouses. His doctor tells him his liver is failing, no doubt due to stress. Park’s other inner-circle men treat him like a son who’s flunking out of college. His own men aren’t sure whether to respect him or pity him. His other cabinet members are mostly interested in graft and pompous self-aggrandizement.
The vast majority of the film deals with the day before and the night of Park’s death during a dinner party. Kim sends one of his top men, Agent Ju (Shiri’s Suk-kyu Han), to bring back two girls for that night’s entertainment. The men get drunk, gawk at the girls, badmouth other world leaders, heap more abuse on Kim, and all at once he steps out into his office and tells his cohorts: “Now’s the time.” He has been meaning to get rid of Park and his entire inner circle for some time now, and despite all his talk about making the world a better place if they do, we know it’s because he’s sick of being bullied. Kim loads his gun (there’s a running joke about how there’s so little ammo to go around that most everyone habitually uses blanks as a scare tactic), walks back into the dining room, and shoots the men dead. Then the trouble really begins, as Kim tries to conceal the assassination from the rest of the cabinet (and the rest of the world), only to realize it might not be worth the trouble.
What makes all this actually funny is the peculiar tone the movie brings to the goings-on, and this melding of serious and silly is something Korean directors seem to do better than almost anyone else right now. Openly ludicrous things happen, but the movie deals with them without any self-conscious winking or directorial double-takes. Soldiers march into a conference room only to bark their shins on the furniture because the lights aren’t working. When the president’s nude corpse is unveiled to his remaining cabinet members, one of them hastily puts his officer’s cap over the dead man’s crotch. The violence is also matter-of-fact in a peculiarly Korean way. As in real life, few of the people die instantly when they are shot; Ju even has to send men around to re-shoot many people with an assault rifle when he realizes some of the people gunned down aren’t totally dead yet.
Films like this—where a potentially inappropriate or satirical spin is put on real-life material— either work or they don’t, and a lot of it sometimes just comes down to chemistry and luck. For every Dr. Strangelove that works, there’s an American Dreamz that seems stalled at the idea phase. Bang works mostly by relying on tone and demeanor, which it has down pat, instead of facts and dates. It isn’t meant to be a documentary, but embodies about a point of view on the material—about how to those who were involved in what happened it must have all seemed like one gigantic sick joke. Surely history is not made this way? But maybe it is, and it only seems like history after you’ve distanced yourself from it a bit.
How is this movie going to play for people who know nothing about the politics behind it? I know that for the opening few minutes I was somewhat confused—there’s a bit of drama involving a sort of geisha house for Park’s inner circle that doesn’t make a lot of sense at first—but the movie sorts itself out before too long. Existing Korean movie fans through the rest of the world will probably not have a problem, and might have a better chance of seeing it in the same light that many native South Koreans did. In South Korea, merely addressing this material at all has been taboo, and with wounds that deep and hard to speak of at all maybe the only way to get them out in the open is to laugh at them.
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