The President’s Last Bang (그때 그사람들) – ★★★★☆

The President's Last Bang (그때 그사람들)

The President’s Last Bang (그때 그사람들)

The date is October 26th, 1979 – the day of ‘strongman’ Park Chung-hee’s assassination. Following almost 18 years of brutal military rule and with a growing call for democracy by Korean citizens, Park, and those in his regime, are concerned. A dinner event is arranged in the Blue House for select chief members of staff including KCIA Director Kim Jae-kyu (Baek Yoon-Sik (백윤식). As alcohol flows and Japanese songs are sung, the talk of politics and conflict infuriates Jae-gyu. Briefly excusing himself from the event, Director Kim confers with Chief Agent Ju (Han Seok-gyu (한석규) and decide that tonight will be Park Chung-hee’s last. With a select group of KCIA agents at the ready, the stage is set for the assassination that will change the course of Korea forever.

KCIA Direcor Kim confers with his staff as they plan the assassination of Park Chun-hee

KCIA Direcor Kim confers with his staff as they plan the assassination of Park Chun-hee

The President’s Last Bang is a brilliantly biting and incredibly funny political satire by director Im Sang-soo (임상수), who takes one of the darkest and most controversial periods of recent Korean history and crafts a highly provocative and compelling exploration of the assassination.

To this day Park Chung-hee remains a very divisive figure in Korean politics, and the film immediately generated a deluge of controversy upon release in 2005. Park Ji-man, the former leader’s son, ordered a law suit against the film that resulted in the removal of nearly 4 minutes of screen time, and was released nationally and internationally in this manner. The scenes featured real documentary footage of democracy protests and Park’s funeral which bookended the film, providing context for the events depicted. Their removal (and replacement with a blank black screen in protest) ultimately generate a less effective viewing experience. However the court’s decision was overturned in 2006 on the grounds of the rights to freedom of expression, although the production company was still ultimately punished for defamation against the late authoritarian ruler. While the verdict was a victory against censorship, the case also pointed to Park’s enduring legacy within the Korean political system through the power and influence wielded by his children – including his daughter, current President Park Geun-hye – an irony that was not lost on many political commentators.

Much of the controversy centres around the representation of the authoritarian ruler as a Japan-loving, democracy-hating, womanising, cowardly old man. Director Im Sang-soo solidified his reputation through exploring issues of amorality within the upper echelons of society, and with The President’s Last Bang he is absolutely superb in articulating such concerns through representing the corruption associated with the Park Chung-hee administration.

Kim Jae-gyu prepares to change the course of Korea forever

Kim Jae-gyu prepares to change the course of Korea forever

Through scenes depicting Park’s late night partying and penchant for young girls, his love of Japanese culture to the point of employing the language and songs (a real issue for many Koreans following years of Japanese occupation), and the startling justification of his regime through comparisons with Cambodia, Park is constructed as a reprehensible wretch and a fool. As such his assassination is represented as well-deserved, yet through the inclusion of satire it is also darkly hilarious.

Taking a cue from the multitude of conflicting statements regarding Kim Jae-gyu’s motivations and the event itself, the film effectively employs dark comedy to make scenes of death and mayhem incredibly funny. There is conflicting evidence to suggest Kim’s plan was either planned or spontaneous, which the film wonderfully spins into a comical farce as the members of the KCIA fumble and blunder their way through the assassination, as well as in their later attempts to conceal the truth. Actor Baek Yoon-Sik shines throughout such sequences as the KCIA director Kim Jae-gyu due to his deadpan expressions and comic timing, with events escalating so quickly beyond control that his transitions between agitation, stoicism and laissez-faire attitude frequently induce laughter.

Yet while the first half of the film is fuelled with energy, suspense and comedy as the impending assassination draws near, the film loses much of its zeal following Park’s death. The narrative shifts gear in bleaker territory as it accommodates the political ramifications of the event, while the subdued tone is also undoubtedly derived from audience awareness of what follows the investigation, though it’s to director Im’s credit that he still manages to effectively mine comedy from the fraught situation. The combination of real-life controversy and dark humour is not easy to amalgamate yet The President’s Last Bang succeeds superbly and makes for highly compelling viewing.

Dark comedy is employed to great effect throughout The President's Last Bang

Dark comedy is employed to great effect throughout The President’s Last Bang

Verdict:

The President’s Last Bang is a brilliantly dark, highly controversial political satire depicting the assassination of military ‘strongman’ Park Chung-hee. Director Im Sang-soo is incredibly insightful and witty as he explores the amorality and corruption of Park and his administration, superbly employing laughter-inducing dark humour as events transpire. While the film loses some of its impetus in the second half, director Im has crafted a highly provocative and compelling exploration of one of the darkest periods in recent Korean history.

★★★★☆

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Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating 'alien' Man-shik

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!) – ★★★★☆

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

Cult classic Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!) is perhaps best described as Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) meets Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) through an amalgamation of dark comedy and disparate genres. While this might sound like an absurd concoction, writer/director Jang Jun-hwan (장준환) merges the assorted features into an incredibly  compelling and entertaining whole, one that moves seamlessly from the madcap to the profound in the creation of a unique celluloid gem. Unfortunately the cult status Save the Green Planet has acquired in foreign territories wasn’t replicated on Korean soil, where it took a nose-dive at the box office. This is a genuine shame as, while not perfect, Save the Green Planet highlights director Jang’s distinctive style and is a highly refreshing departure from other, more formulaic, productions.

Recluse Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun (신하균) becomes obsessed with the notion that Earth is under threat from aliens hailing from Andromeda. To save the green planet, Byeong-gu and his partner Su-ni (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) kidnap the CEO of a large chemical conglomerate, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik (백윤식), believed to be one of the most senior ranking aliens. Torturing the executive for answers, Byeong-gu attempts to discover the clandestine machinations of the race, as well as saving his mother who he also believes to be a victim of alien experimentation. Yet the kidnapping does not go unnoticed by the law, with the police force – as well as a renegade cop – following the trail.

Is Byeong-gu mentally unstable, or does he hold the key to Earth's survival?

Is Byeong-gu mentally unstable, or does he hold the key to Earth’s survival?

‘Madcap’ is a word often used to describe Save the Green Planet and that it is, although not in the haphazard manner the word implies. Director Jang Joon-hwan displays a keen understanding of the array of cinematic traits he employs, competently structuring them in order to provide the best possible use of generic conventions whilst also deriving dark-comedy from the source. Scenes featuring horror, thriller, and dramatic traits flow seamlessly, constructing dramatic tension yet often exhibiting a tongue-in-cheek sensibility as it does so. Torture sequences, for example, feature toe-curling moments but are also incredibly – and darkly – funny, as evil CEO Man-shik has antihistamine rubbed into wounds and is routinely degraded. Similarly, references to accomplished cinematic classics that arise throughout the film are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and are enjoyable for cinephiles and occasional movie fans alike.

However, humour is just one of the many facets that make Save the Green Planet so entertaining. What truly makes the film so engaging are the underlying themes of the narrative and the psychological disposition of central protagonist Byeong-gu. From the outset, Byeong-gu is conveyed as seriously mentally ill. His theories regarding aliens from Andromeda is the stuff of B-movie science fiction material, while his attire and quirkiness belie the horrors that await in his private torture chamber. Yet his unique perspective on the world is an ironic one, as he uncovers scandals, corruption and amorality in attempting to prove the existence of aliens. Byeong-gu is indeed correct about the Earth being under threat, just not in the manner that his neurosis has constructed. It is in danger through the machinations of the rich and powerful, features which Byeong-gu strips away in order to reveal the ‘truth’ – and potentially atonement – making the unhinged young man something of an anti-hero.

Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating 'alien' Man-shik

Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating ‘alien’ Man-shik

As a result of all his eccentricities the film is a deeply psychological exploration of Byeong-gu’s paranoid mind, one that becomes more and more apparent through multiple viewings. As the unstable protagonist’s history is uncovered, director Jang crafts a biting social commentary regarding contemporary Korea, one that certainly would not be out of place in a Lee Chang-dong film. In doing so Byeong-gu’s cause – and indeed the film itself – is given incredible heartfelt merit, so much so that despite the atrocities he commits his status as an anti-hero is actually heightened. Director Jang intelligently articulates Byeong-gu’s psychosis through the mise-en-scene of the homestead, a multi-tiered countryside abode that features dimly-lit mannequins in the basement and bee hives in the garden, all symbolically linked to is unbalanced mind.

With such a wealth of character material, Shin Ha-kyun doesn’t disappoint. Arguably his career best, Shin is simply excellent in the role with his chameleonic ability to switch between manic highs and solemn lows incredibly impressive and, despite the often comical attributes, sincere. The protagonist could easily be another silly psycho but Shin gives Byeong-gu heart and conviction to make him truly sympathetic, and one of the most memorable characters in contemporary Korean cinema. Such focus unfortunately isn’t bestowed upon other members within the film, notably love interest Su-ni and the assortment of bumbling and renegade cops on the kidnapping trail, ultimately leading to plot threads that are never really mined for their potential. But as Byeong-gu is so charismatic and engaging such shortcomings are easily ignored, as it’s largely due to him that Save the Green Planet is such a compelling genre-bending film.

Battered and bruised, Man-shik attempts to discover Byeong-gu's secrets

Battered and bruised, Man-shik attempts to discover Byeong-gu’s secrets

Verdict:

Save the Green Planet is a thoroughly engaging and fun amalgamation of disparate generic features, all interwoven into a uniquely thrilling whole. Yet in addition to the madcap antics, director Jang Joon-hwan has crafted a biting social satire as well as a highly memorable, psychologically unbalanced anti-hero in the form of Byeong-gu. While the array of characters means that not all get a chance to shine, Byeong-gu’s heartfelt conviction overshadow such shortcomings. Save the Green Planet an incredibly enjoyable, strikingly powerful, and uniquely refreshing film.

★★★★☆

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