‘When the film was distributed in Korea it caused massive controversy, similar to the effects of a bomb within the Korean community. It was because the central figure in this movie was untouchable’, said writer/director Im Sang-soo on the occasion of a screening of his 2005 film The President’s Last Bang at the Tiger Film Festival in June 2008. Im is no stranger to controversy, his previous films Girl’s Night Out (1998) and A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) having received their fair share of criticism because of their frank sexuality, but in The President’s Last Bang he bravely takes on the revered South Korean president Park Chung-hee.
During the 60s and 70s, Park’s dictatorship modernised the country, but his methods were authoritarian and liberal ideals were brutally suppressed by his KCIA. His 18-year rule came to a bloody end in 1979 when he was assassinated and it’s that night that is the focus of Im’s film. The director is the first one to admit that the film is largely made up of material that comes from his own research and from his imagination, but the courts didn’t want their great leader tainted, so they censored the use of several minutes of documentary footage of Park’s funeral. However, international audiences can see the film uncut, with Im’s biting satire of the president alongside the emotional public outpouring that followed his death.
The film sees KCIA Director Kim (Baek Yun-shik) growing as tired of Park’s orders to get tough on student protestors as of the president’s decadent parties. It’s at one of these get-togethers that Kim decides enough is enough and he conspires with Chief Ju (Han Suk-kyu’s nonchalant, gum-chewing agent) to kill Park and his cronies. The impulsive deed itself is chaotic, Kim’s attempt to make it look like a terrorist attack is almost an afterthought, and it’s in the blind panic of the aftermath that Im really shines. As ministers run around like headless chickens and bicker about what to do next, Im uses darkly comic touches to mock the ineffectuality of the government. In the dead of night, as cut off from society as the leaders in Dr Strangelove‘s infamous war room, they’re exposed as a collection of competing egos and fragile, frightened ones at that. Im isn’t out to cause controversy in South Korea only but in any country where power is abused, admitting global powers like the US were a target too.
There’s a richness to Im’s devilish style that owes much to Coppola’s epic Godfather movies but there’s also something much edgier. Perhaps it has something to do with his tribute to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver in the scene where the camera floats slowly across the bloodbath at the president’s palace; but mainly it’s Im’s fusion of Korea’s sly humour with international politics that will earn him global attention. He won’t be content with being labelled merely a ‘Korean director’, and The President’s Last Bang demonstrates that he has the guts and talent to make it on the world stage, where he’ll no doubt soon rattle a few more cages.