Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This rather crazy Korean thriller focuses on the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, the President of South Korea. Korean director Sang-soo Im takes a completely irreverent approach to the subject, presenting a debauched president surrounded by lackeys and pompous tyrants in a thoroughly corrupt administration. The actual assassination is so haphazard that it comes off as wickedly funny. Few governments will tolerate The President's Last Bang's kind of daring political satire. The biggest shock is that the South Korean authorities let it be shown, even with a couple of enforced deletions.
Life at the higher echelons of the South Korean Government in 1979 is nobody's idea of order and propriety. President Park Chung-hee (Jae-ho Song) maintains an elaborate house of prostitution while his loutish appointees vie for power and position. Bodyguards and security forces are everywhere, armed men who must turn a blind eye to all kinds of conniving and hanky panky. KCIA Director Kim (Yun-shik Baek) spends a morning in a torture compound threatening a mother and daughter who have dared to protest that President Park molested the daughter without appropriate compensation. After he and his top Agent Ju (Suk-kyu Han) release the women in the middle of a crowded freeway, Kim decides to pull off a micro-coup d'état. President Park enjoys a dinner with two close associates and a prostitute, entertained by a command performance from a popular singer. Director Kim informs Ju to prepare three loyal agents to start shooting when they hear his gunshots from the dining room. What does Kim have in mind? What will happen when the massed Presidential guard and the Armed forces close in on him?
The only hint of sanity in The President's Last Bang comes at the beginning, when a voiceover explaining the state of the South Korean government in 1979 is heard over a couple of minutes of black leader. The image is missing because the South Korean censors would let the movie be shown only if newsreel scenes of the real Park Chung-hee were removed, so that audiences wouldn't think that the film was factual. Powerful forces must have been protecting the production, which portrays Korean officials as infantile thugs abusing their governmental power. The Jimmy Carter-era Korean politicos even make cruel jokes against American diplomats, who they consider to be idiots.
In the very first scene a high-priced madam watches a Presidential aide take home movies of her girls bouncing topless in the brothel pool; we're given to understand that she's running a dedicated Presidential harem, and that anybody who squawks about it will find themselves in the KCIA torture compound.
There's nothing in American filmmaking that can compare with this picture, unless one believes that Oliver Stone's JFK is a wild exposé of the "truth" behind the Kennedy assassination. Although his film plays as a mordantly funny black comedy, writer/Director Sang-soo Im claims that the basics of the story are all true. KCIA Director Kim appears to undergo a moral meltdown, comparing himself to a Samurai. He's determined to strike a lightning blow against what he sees as inexcusable corruption and decadence. Kim decides to personally whack the Prez, right in the middle of one of his debauched private dinners.
Kim's main gunslinger is the charismatic Ju, a gum-chewing loner agent also sickened by the state of affairs. He hates transporting the President's female companions and would like to get into another line of work. But he's a good soldier: When Kim tells him to arm some men and get ready to rumble, Ju and another sub-agent agree without protest. If they're all going to die, doing it this way sounds good enough to them.
Director Sang-soo turns the dinner party into a bloody comedy of errors. Victims and bystanders scream and cower while Kim blasts away, dashing out to get another gun when he runs out of ammo. Ju's agents wipe out two or three bodyguards and then take out the entire kitchen staff as well. Ju has to face off against a top bodyguard who is also a close friend -- an unfortunate fight to the death. The two female entertainers flee to an upstairs bedroom in panic. Convinced that they haven't long to live, they promptly get drunk! Throughout the entire bloodbath, the valet-housekeeper organizing the dinner party wanders around at will, staying calm and quiet. He's never even considered as a target.
The rest of the evening shakes down as a farce. Panicked government officials are awakened and the military eventually takes over. The Chief of Staff is refused entry to his own headquarters because his guards don't recognize him. A cowardly secretary who miraculously escaped the slaughter waits half the night before revealing who did the killings, apparently fearful that the people he's talking to are part of the conspiracy.
The eventual denouement is a grim one for the leaders of the coup, but The President's Last Bang lingers in the memory as a wickedly funny satire that could be titled Regime Change for Dummies. The realistic and messy carnage is only one aspect of a consistently loony unreality, as if Quentin Tarantino were playing the Lincoln assassination for laughs.
The two main conspirators are said to be big Korean stars. The gum-popping Suk-kyu Han is both a cool customer and a confused fool; he walks around for an hour with his shirt soaked in blood, but everyone is too agitated to notice. Director Sang-soo is not a Tarantino wannabe from Seoul; his slick style doesn't imitate American models. His images have snap, and the Presidential 'safe house' for naughty 'meetings' is a great site for a bloodbath. A funny, bloody, nervous good time is had by all.
Kino Video's DVD of The President's Last Bang is a terrific enhanced transfer of a colorful and smart-looking oddball film from Korea. The clear audio track has us listening intently as chaotic shouting and gunfire echo from distant rooms. The Japanese song performed for the President's private supper party is used as an element in the pre-shootout suspense.
Director Sang-soo Im (also inverted or corrected, as Im Sang-soo) appears in a short interview to recall his censor troubles and the film's enthusiastic reception at European festivals. He tells us that tempers ran high in Seoul, prompting him to hire bodyguards for a few days. That sounds like a good idea!
An appropriately quirky trailer is included as well as a promotional stills gallery featuring the two male stars posing with their guns, etc. The English subtitles are removable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The President's Last Bang rates:
Supplements: Director interview, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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