It took a bit of cajoling to get me to review this South Korean political thriller because…well, because it’s a South Korean political thriller. This is a hard sell, because while most of the world is hard-wired into US politics, the development of the Korean CIA and the abuse of presidential power is a rather more obscure subject to Western eyes. So it’s quite remarkable that Woo Min-ho’s film, the South Korean entry for the Oscars, generates a fair amount of interest and tension in a carefully fabricated version of events that the average viewer is unlikely to be familiar with.
If there’s a US film that feels like a useful point of comparison for the first hour, it’s Oliver Stone’s JFK; sure, other movies feature men in trench-coats offering up information in the shadow of the Washington Monument, but Stone’s political diatribe set the bar high. Set in 1979, this film is about Kim Gyu-pyeong (star Lee Byung-hun) who is deputised by President Park (Lee Sung-min) to deal with the former KCIA director’s escape to the West, and his attempt to bring America onside with his efforts to force political change back home. The film is based on the novel Namsanui Bujangdeul by Kim Choong-Sik, and has a real density about the depiction of diplomatic exchanges that lead to assassination.
A synopsis is tricky here, because several of these characters are fictional, but relate directly to real-life figures; the performances are consistent, but it’s Woo Min-ho as Park Yong-gak who really steals the show as the flamboyant thorn in the president’s side. Most Western viewers will not be able to work out what the differences are between fact and fiction, but once the historical bona-fides are sorted out, The Man Standing Next rises to some credible action set-pieces, notably Park Yong-gak’s attempts to evade Algerian assassins.
The first hour of The Man Standing Next is something of a slow burn, with a lot of men in waistcoats and raincoats discussing political matters in foreboding tones, but the tempo shift in the last half hour and the careful build-up pays off in some dramatic, almost iconic scenes, that recall The Day of the Jackal. Kim Gyu-pyeong turns out to be a character with rather more agency that it initially seems; viewers may recognise the star from the GI Joe films, but it’s unlikely that much of that audience will want to apply here. Perhaps not a film for the casual viewer, but a well-told story that has the heft of a John le Carre thriller, and that’s a hearty recommendation for any political thriller