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.