by Jeff Meyers
Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang presents the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee with all the court intrigue of a Shakespearean drama. A military leader who oversaw South Korea's postwar economic boom, Park became a corrupt puppet of big business; he rewrote the constitution at personal whim, employed thug tactics against dissenters with his secret police (the KCIA) and enjoyed a decadent lifestyle to rival North Korea's current leader Kim Jong Il.
Mixing matter-of-fact brutality with deadpan satire, director Im Sang-soo's tightly structured film takes aim at South Korea's attitudes about class, politics and the military-industrial complex.
KCIA director Kim Jaegyu (Baek Yoon-sik), suffering from a bad liver and a guilty conscience, decides that he's had enough of Park's corrupt regime. Invited to a private soiree at the longtime dictator's safe house, Kim sees his opportunity. As Park (Song Jae-ho) and his trusted yes-men slurp down alcohol and food while pawing at young women, Kim and his top men impulsively put their plan into motion.
Director Sang-soo uses this calm before the blood-spattered storm to build tension, carefully putting his chess pieces into place while injecting some absurdly funny dialogue. Park's boasts of a seal testicle diet are particularly memorable. During this prelude to violence, the director emulates David Fincher's Panic Room, shooting the dictator's manor from every possible angle, using beautifully constructed tracking shots that simmer with violent possibility. When the fireworks finally erupt, they are startling, swift and bloody.
Unfortunately, Kim hadn't really planned for the coup's aftermath. Without a follow-up strategy he and his men quickly get caught up in the state's still-corrupt machinery and find themselves trapped.
This stranger-than-fiction account expertly captures the chaos of Kim's reckless coup as well as serving up every kind of human foible and hypocrisy. Pompous bureaucrats, incompetent tough guys and hapless bystanders all end up in the director's crosshairs. At first it's a bit hard to follow, and some of the story gets lost in translation, but once the assassination gears start turning, Last Bang is riveting.
Sang-soo's pacing is perfect, and every frame is beautifully composed. The blood-and-guts action is buoyed by a tango-flavored sound track, giving it a farcical bottom note.
The straight-faced comedy doesn't quite work however. Sang-soo's sense of humor, though appropriately black, relies too much on banal slapstick, never achieving a sense of the outrageous or hysterical. Furthermore, he all but ignores the human elements of the story, replacing insight or comment with terse farce. Perhaps the absurd facts of this real-life event seemed shocking enough. After all, the South Korean government, angered by the film, censored four minutes of documentary footage from its opening.
Though it never ascends to the heights of Dr. Strangelove the characters are far too sober and the jokes just aren't that inspired The President's Last Bang is nevertheless deliciously entertaining.
In Japanese and Korean with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 13; 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.