The Man Standing Next

The Man Standing Next is about the 40 days leading up to the overthrow of President Park of South Korea in 1979. This is some straight-up slick 70s spy shit right here. If you like John le Carre, this will be right up your street.

I have to admit, I’m completely ignorant about South Korean political history, but you don’t need to come to this with any previous knowledge to enjoy it. A lot of context is given in the film and a lot of it is pretty self-evident from the time period. There are communists to the north, and this is a right-wing military government being propped up by America, as part of the Cold War.

But things are not going well in South Korea of the film’s setting. All the main characters are veteran armed forces leaders who took part in the military coup that was supposed to be temporary, but has, by now, lasted 18 years. You have President Park, who has grown paranoid and more dictatorial in his autocratic reign. You have Director Kim, who is the film’s protagonist, the head of South Korea’s CIA, and who believes President Park has become unstable, and the government needs to move back towards democracy. And you have the ex-head of the Korean CIA, confusingly also called Park, who I’ll call Traitor Park, who is defecting to the US and outing all their secrets. This is really a story about loyalty and betrayal among old friends.

Set aside that everyone involved is an evil fascist bastard so you can actually enjoy the movie. Spy movies don’t have goodies, everyone’s hands are dirty. Director Kim is as close as you’ll get to a sympathetic character, and even he does a number of ruthless and appalling things over the course of the film.

But you do root for him. Obviously because he’s the only one talking sense in a room full of sycophants and toadies, but also because his is a deeply emotional journey, with very expressive but not overly verbose soul-searching. The film asks you to buy into the idea that here was the one guy who genuinely did think the military coup was temporary, that they were just there to restore order and ensure the North didn’t invade, and that there was meant to be a path to democracy down the line. It’s kinda the plot to Julius Caesar, the tragic figure among all the back-stabbing self-interested shits is Brutus, who genuinely believed Caesar was a threat to the republic.

Director Kim is shown as having possibly selfish reasons for his actions, as there will always be a mix to muddy the waters of the human heart, but it is more interesting a story if he is a true believer, that he is genuinely acting out of concern for his country. Because he does definitely seem torn, between loyalty to President Park, a lifelong friend, and loyalty to his country, who is suffering at his hands.

I think I enjoyed this more because I came with so little knowledge of the subject, every twist and turn I was on the edge of my seat, I genuinely didn’t know what was gonna happen next. A real tension-pounding classic style thriller.

Our Midnight

A pretentious arsehole actor meets a woman on a bridge with actual real problems.

The film starts with Jihoon’s long-suffering girlfriend dumping him, like the woman of sense she is. After a decade in a relationship together, he has no intention of marrying her, or concern about contributing financially. He is an act-tor don’t you know, and the fact he is not supporting himself by acting or any other work seems to bother him not a jot. Now they’ve passed 30, she wants to get her life started, and maybe one day provide for her family. This confirms Jihoon’s opinion of himself as the only true artist.

With no girlfriend to presumably leach off of, he takes a job patrolling the bridges over the Han River in the centre of Seoul, a big spot for suicides. The purpose is to approach anyone standing on their own who looks like they are considering jumping, and kind of just giving them a bit of company and chit chat to deflect the impulse in the moment. They send this self-involved cretin with low emotional intelligence off to do this highly sensitive job after a quick Powerpoint presentation.

On his first night, he meets Eunyeung, a woman who had a relationship with a coworker which turned violent and ended with his arrest, and is now being pressured to leave her job because she is a headache for HR. There’s a business with no gender-based violence policy.

Jihoon finds her ready to jump on the bridge and chats to her, telling her he’s there to jump too, but maybe it might do them good to go for a walk for a little while. He encourages her to talk, telling her all about his problems as an out-of-work actor, unappreciated by those around him *eyeroll*. He then comes up with the great idea of roleplay, and makes her act out a scene with him in which he gets to exercise his acting chops by playing an abusive partner. He is excited at the challenge of performing one of the most traumatic moments in her life. He comforts her by telling her knows what she’s going through, because being mistreated by the person you love and trust most, then stigmatised and blamed for it publicly, that’s a lot like him not getting a lot of acting parts.

Ugh. This guy.

This film is shot mostly in black-and-white, is only an hour and a quarter long and yet the film title doesn’t show until 25 minutes into the movie. That’s all you need to know.

Jihoon does go on a bit of a character arc. Arc might be overstating it a bit, maybe something smaller, like an arcmin. Anyway, he does have a moment of self-reflection, for what seems like the first time in his life. Turns out dealing with suicide has emotional repercussions, and he seems to actually consider the topic for the first time. Which, I dunno man, I just have limited sympathy for. Maybe it’s living here, in the suicide capital of Scotland, but how can you only be noticing something like that in your 30s? They say in the movie that somebody’s going off these bridges almost every day, how can you be so blind to that?

Anyway, I’m sure he’ll use it for tools in his acting paintbox. After all, most things in this movie funnel back to being about him.

Voice of Silence

Voice of Silence is a comedy crime caper about a mute guy, Tae-in, and his pal who get lumbered with a wean that is being held hostage as part of a kidnapping. Tae-in is not a bad guy, he’s just working for the only business employing in the area, namely a crime family. Usually he mostly just buries the bodies they drop, but in a manner that is considerate and respectful, as much as you can under the circumstance.

Our anti-hero is not pleased at having to babysit an 11-year-old hostage, especially as he’s got a 5-year-old sister to look after in his broke-ass tumble-down shack. But Cho-hee, the abductee, actually becomes the grease that keeps the small family running, the glue holding it together. In the time that she’s with him, they feel like more of a family.

I loved Cho-hee, who is the only one with any bit of sense in this film. I like how she cuts through the bullshit. When they tell her gently, “You’re gonna stay with us for a night or so”, she’s like, “Oh, I’ve been kidnapped.” And when they’re like, “No, no, we just need you to write a letter home to your dad,” she’s like, “For ransom, aye?” And they’re like, “No, no, it’s just taking him a little longer to come get you,” and she’s like, “Coz I’m a girl and he’d be much happier if he just had my brother anyway.”

The dark humour of the film in this kinda noirish flick is really good, and the silence of the main character allows his journey of parental affection for Cho-hee not to become overly sentimental, and remain touching within this ridiculous setup. A good watch.

If you like this…

The Swordsman

South Korean samurai movie. Go-hor-geous! A full on eyegasm. From the opening title sequence, I was every kind of Here For It.

Kingsguard Tae-yul is unable to stop the deposition of his king, but spirits his daughter away into the mountains, out of harm’s way. Raising her as his own, they live in peace, until one day, his failing eyesight means they must journey down the mountain for some medicine. By this time the cruelty of the rule of the emperor in Qing is being felt by all, and slavery and outrages abound. As the princess unwittily gets once again drawn into the machinations of those in power, her father must rescue her, defeat the evil invaders, and avenge his fallen king. FUCK YEAH!

Classic traditional story with secret princesses, and noble heroes, and goodies and baddies, and the whole thing just fun fun fun fun fun!