Why you should care
Because flicks about presidents rarely include gunplay, go-go dancers and champagne, but they probably should.
The President’s Last Bang is one of several gritty, bleak and transgressive cult films being exported from South Korea. This strain of cinema is rooted in the 1960 film The Housemaid, a creepy blend of domestic melodrama, Hitchcockian thriller and social satire (which director Im Sang-soo remade in 2010) but reached a peak in the 2000s with critically lauded and widely distributed films like Bad Guy, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, Thirst, and Mother.
Around the halfway point of Im Sang-soo’s 2005 black comedy, The President’s Last Bang, the president of South Korea gets shot in the head by his disgruntled intelligence chief in the middle of a drunken dinner with other aides, a female college student and a pop singer.
This all before the chief and his co-conspirators are rounded up and executed.
And for anyone seeing red over my having spoiled a film’s entire third act, let me direct you to any citizen of the Republic of Korea, for whom the movie was spoiled nearly 35 years ago when the plot point actually took place.
The president in question was Park Chung-hee, who managed South Korea’s affairs from 1961 until the events of the film in 1979. And exactly who he was depends on who you ask. Conservatives tend to regard him as the nation’s savior, whose economic policies made South Korea the first world contender it is today. Others, however, regard him as a run-of-the-mill strongman who arbitrarily rewrote the constitution (to effectively make him dictator for life) and restricted everything from political opposition to pop music to the length of people’s hair.
”Though 34 years have passed since he died, the nationalist rhetoric of the ’third republic’ is still alive in the subconscious of the mass,” says Dongyang University professor and cultural critic Chin Jung-kwon who describes Park’s nationalism as ”a symptom of a general psychic disease Korea is suffering from.” Memorials to him include a number of stern statues, elaborate halls, ceremonies, and the 2012 election of his First Lady and daughter as president (which seems better suited above the DMZ).
But under Im’s direction, Park is neither dynamic Great Man nor evil emperor, but instead a tired, jaded and stoic old man who scoffs at the concerns of student protestors, snarks at democracy and who forces his citizens to stand for the national anthem in the middle of rush hour. The cynical dialogue, the bloody slapstick and war-room buffoonery are reminiscent of, perhaps even equal to, classics of political satire like In the Loop and Dr. Strangelove.
Under Im’s direction, Park is neither dynamic Great Man nor evil emperor, but a tired, jaded and stoic old man.
President’s more region-specific subject matter may have kept it out of the international limelight, but its cavalier nose-thumbing toward so revered an authority figure makes it easily the most controversial among its peers. ”Political matters would be the last things Koreans want to see on a screen,” says Chin, who authored his own Park-inspired satire Spit on Your Grave in 1997. “They feel themselves tortured enough by political conflicts that headline mass media from morning to night.” Park’s son even sued the film’s production company, MK Pictures, getting it to cut nearly four minutes of footage. An appeal ordered the footage restored but awarded Park’s son $105,000 for some of Im’s more defamatory embellishments, such as depicting Park as a Japanophile.
In spite of the controversy, however, The President’s Last Bang is a fitting tribute film, if not to Park then certainly to the mutations in South Korean society that took place in his wake. Were he alive today, Park might be disappointed to know that South Korea ranks one place higher than the United States on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and that his daughter’s presidency is limited to a single five-year term. Its economic growth continues apace, but it is less averse to the individualistic affluence that inevitably arises from it. It has embraced (and some would say improved upon) typically Western culture and brands, which the West has repaid in kind with music sales, YouTube hits and major studio remakes, such as Spike Lee’s recently released version of Oldboy.
“Pop culture in the ‘70s was regarded as something decadent; now it is promoted by the government itself as the engine of Korean cultural industry called ‘Hanryu’ (Korean stream),” Chun says.
Gangnam style, indeed.