The Man Standing Next – Review

The Man Standing Next“Men at some time are masters of their fate.”

Giving off distinctly Caesar and Brutus vibes is Min-ho Woo’s The Man Standing Next, a semi-fictionalised account of the assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-Hee. The film centres around the 40 days prior to the assassination, as loyalties are tested, rumours are whispered and tempers flare.

Director Min-ho Woo captures a flavour that is like Le Carre novel meets Das Leben der Anderen. The film opens with Park Yong-Gak (Do-Won Kwak) having defected to America, threatening to tell all the gaudy secrets of life under President Park’s (Sung-Min Lee) dictatorship. Having been part of the President’s military coup seventeen years previously, Park is now intent in telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Back in Korea, a power struggle is developing between Director Kim (Lee Byung-Hun), Park’s successor at the KCIA and the brutish Head of Security Gwak (Hee-Joon Lee). There is so much in-fighting and attempts at one-upmanship, yet everyone manages to retain their poker face – making it rather difficult to delve deeper into each characters’ psyche.

Although, at times, it is hard to keep up with who is double-crossing who, the escalating tension and increasing acts of violence are perfectly executed. But you really do need to be paying attention – there are so many sub-plots and characters working towards their own agendas that this film really demands your undivided.

Like any dictatorship throughout history, Min-ho Woo surrounds his in subterfuge and sabotage. There are sweeping shots of long corridors; bugs blinking under desks; men listening at keyholes; suitcases swapped by men in trenchcoats. Every scene is cast in muted colours, a visual metaphor for the shadowy undertakings of the regime.

Yeong-Wook Jo’s soundtrack is so atmospheric – it really contributes to the escalating tensions. Strings really do get under your skin and make you shiver unlike any other instrument.

The Man Standing NextThe night time scenes in Paris stand out as being particularly thrilling. You have no idea how the situation is going to unravel against the moonlit cobblestones of the City of Light. Equally, the pacing of the almost unbearably tense dinner between Park, Kim and Gwak – quite literally, The Last Supper – will have you on the edge of your seat.

The threat of revolt – even the South Korean’s have decided seventeen years is quite enough for a military dictatorship – is seen in glimpses. There are burning buildings and talk of factions ready to take the capital. But the action rarely strays from the offices of the President – keeping everything close and focused on the main players.

The central performances are all very strong. You can see the beads of sweat form on Lee Byung-Hun’s forehead; the regret and fear evident in his straining lips. He’s a man who – despite his logic and straightforwardness – clearly has a bigger sense of his own destiny and his place in history.

Sung-Min Lee barely gives anything away as President Park – even his orders of assassination are shrouded in deniability. Hee-Joon Lee slowly unravels as the increasingly violent and reactive Gwak – his hair and sharp suit becoming increasingly disheveled as the film progresses.

The film ends with a little more detail as to the fates of the various players seen on screen. It does make you question: Is anyone here the good guy? Is there anyone acting for anything other than their own self-interest?

The Man Standing Next is set to be Korea’s Oscar entry in the Foreign Language category. Whilst it’s perhaps more conventional and mainstream than its compatriot, Parasite, it certainly grips your attention right until the very end.

Classic spy thrillers – especially ones set amongst a mysterious and violent regime – are never not entertaining.

The Man Standing Next is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival from March 7 to 10. Click here to get your tickets.

Mary Munoz
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