South Korean cinema finally gets its first full-blown political satire with “The President’s Last Bang,” a virtuoso slice of sustained black humor centered on the real-life 1979 assassination of Gen. Park Chung-heui by his secret service chief. Imagine a ramped-down, Korean version of “Dr. Strangelove,” and you’re not far from the satirical tone of this fourth feature by writer-director Im Sang-soo (“A Good Lawyer’s Wife”). Though some recognition of the actors involved and some knowledge of recent Korean history enrich the viewing experience, pic could find a specialized market in the West among simpatico upscale auds.
Film caused a major hoo-ha on local release Feb. 3, with Park’s family (including his daughter, current head of the center-right opposition party) getting a court judgment to excise use of documentary footage at the start (anti-government protests of the time) and end (Park’s funeral).
Claim was that audiences could be confused by the mix of fiction and reality. Final B.O., amid some strong competition from other local pics, was a solid but not spectacular 1 million admissions.
In place of the deleted opening footage, international version starts with brief on-screen backgrounding explaining that Park came to power in 1961 and ruled for 18 years with near-dictatorial powers, and how, in October 1979, student and worker demonstrations were crushed by the military.
Film proper kicks off on the day in question, Oct. 26, 1979, with all the protags succinctly introduced. There’s head KCIA agent Ju (local star Han Seok-gyu), a grinning, gum-chewing bully shown terrifying a hooker and her mother; chronically weary KCIA chief Kim (Baek Yun-shik), whose doctor tells him his liver is almost kaput; the prez’s oily chief secretary, Yang (Gweon Byeong-gil); and fat, pompous chief bodyguard, Cha (Jeong Weon-jung).
Park decides his evening’s entertainment is to be with his favorite popular singer, Miss Shim (Kim Yun-ah) — modeled, with a name-change, on a real chanteuse who was present that evening — and brassy goodtime girl Miss Jo (Jo Eun-ji). Park’s un-PC fondness for Japanese songs, and even speaking occasionally in Japanese, is a sly dig which may escape most Western auds.
After the KCIA brass has hurriedly arranged a dinner at a sprawling manse that doubles as a KCIA safe house, Kim, Cha and Yang arrive with the women — and a retinue of bodyguards — for an evening’s private entertainment of song, food and drink. Proceedings kick off with the prez lecturing his guests on “discipline,” his hatred of democracy (and especially U.S. President Carter) and how the KCIA should crack down harder on dissent.
Pic’s sardonic tone has gradually increased under all this activity, with KCIA agents shown as less than 100% efficient and high-ups like Kim more concerned with their bowel movements and off-duty pleasures.
Almost on a whim, Kim decides to take out Park that night, confiding in his loyal deputy, Min (Kim Eung-su), and the younger Ju. Alongside the black humor, helmer Im starts to increase the tension of the moment, with slow tracking-shots through the mansion’s corridors prior to the actual, almost offhand assassination, halfway through the movie.
Thereon, following the messy bloodbath that involves other people in the manse, the movie really bares its satirical teeth. Chaos spreads through the ranks of the military and the KCIA, Kim is eventually arrested and a cool, offscreen voice wraps up the pic with news of what happened to the various participants.
Casting down the line is tip-top, with special kudos to Baek (the kidnapped businessman in “Save the Green Planet”) as KCIA boss Kim, a performance of languid self-loathing and buried anger that anchors the whole movie, tonally and dramatically. Han (“Shiri,” “Tell Me Something”) has hardly been better in recent years, loosening his usual buttoned-up style for a gum-chomping, foul-mouthed role as a secret service thug.
Film is the most elaborately staged of all of Im’s movies, with none of the small-scale grit of “Tears” or edgy camerawork of “Good Woman.”
Lee Min-bok’s large mansion set, all shadowy corners and corridors, is enhanced by d.p. Kim Woo-hyeong’s atmospheric widescreen lensing, and exterior compositions are always filled with business.
Korean title is one of the songs sung by Miss Shim, and roughly means “That Lover of Mine.”