The President's Last Bang Movie Review

It's a scenario one can imagine happening in medieval times. A despotic ruler has grown fat and cruel on a steady diet of sycophants and instant gratification. Some of his men grow more dissatisfied with each passing day and finally take matters into their own hands. The coup is swift and bloody, with the nation's fate balancing on a knife's edge, but the plan has holes and the perpetrators are swiftly rounded up. Only it didn't happen centuries ago. This was South Korea, 1979, and it's the subject of Im Sangsoo's unnerving comedy The President's Last Bang.

Some subjects lend themselves almost too easily to satire, and the aforementioned despot, South Korean president Park Chunghee, is one of them. A military man who engineered the country's postwar economic ascendancy, by 1979 Park is a full-fledged dictator who has rewritten the constitution to give himself limitless power, which he uses to crush any opposition, and also to feed every fleeting, decadant, Kim Il Jong-esque fancy. On the night of October 26, Park announces that he wants to have a banquet with his inner circle. Usually occupied with torturing civilians and covering up Park's peccadilloes, the KCIA - the all-purpose FBI/CIA hybrid that functions as Park's personal Gestapo - has to make the arrangements at one of their safehouses, which is where the plotters come in.

KCIA Director Kim Jaegyu, played by the great Baik Yoonshik (mesmerizing as the kidnapped businessman in Save the Green Planet) is a guy who's had it up to here with doing Park's dirty work. A sour-faced man of few words whose doctor has just diagnosed him with a bad liver, Kim sits with Park's grinning yes-men in the safehouse trying to hide his disgust while Park slurps down food, paws the women on either side (neither of them kidnapped but rather summoned as though to a nobleman's castle) and complains about the pressure he's getting from President Carter on human rights.

Finally snapping, Kim lets his two top men know what's going to happen, and within minutes the plan is in motion. KCIA agents station themselves strategically around the house and the pathetic bacchanal carries on inside while writer/director Im builds the tension with an icy rigor that still manages to inject a healthy strain of absurdity into the violent proceedings. The jerry-rigged plan goes off well, eventually, with presidential bodyguards (as well as a few innocent bystanders) taken down, as is Park himself, even if it takes a few tries. Kim hasn't planned so well for the follow-through, unfortunately, and it doesn't take much for the state machinery to grind back into motion after the initial shock of Park's death, trapping him and his co-conspirators in its gears.

The President's Last Bang makes no attempt to pretend at the humanity of Park or his compatriots here, and indeed it even has a fair amount of contempt for the antihero Kim, quite late to his explosion of conscience, with a few too many stains on his soul to wipe clean with one desperate act. But the film also understands that nothing goes according to plan in this world, and the resulting buffoonish chaos actually makes this stranger-than-fiction story seem more real than any amount of docudrama "realism" could ever have achieved. Indeed, the result is so uncomfortably close to home for the South Korean government that it censored four minutes of documentary footage from the film, the black screen a welcome reminder of how accurate a weapon the right satire can be.

Aka Geuddae geusaramdeul. Reviewed at the 2005 New York Film Festival.

Comments

The President's Last Bang Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2005

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