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The President's Last Bang
  |     review    |     notes     |     availability     |    

Han Suk-Kyu (left) and Baek Yun-Sik (right) as the assassins in The President's Last Bang.
Year: 2005  
Director: Im Sang-Soo  
Writer: Im Sang-Soo  
  Cast: Baek Yun-Shik, Han Suk-Kyu, Song Jae-Ho, Kim Eun-Soo, Jeong Won-Jung, Jo Sang-Geon, Jo Eun-Ji, Kim Yoon-Ah
  The Skinny: A surprisingly entertaining dark comedy about a presidential assassination, Im Sang-Soo's controversial film is packed with effective satire and stellar performances. Historical knowledge not required, but knowing some would add to the appreciation.
Kevin Ma:

     The dark Korean satire The President's Last Bang might sound like a film that requires some political knowledge for enjoyment; however, everything you need is spelt out right at the beginning. President Park Chung-Hee was an authoritative president who took a hard stance against any opponents, even to the point of brutality and human rights violations. On October 26, 1979, he was assassinated during a private dinner gathering at the Blue House, and that faithful night is the focus of the film. Writer/director Im Sang-Soo unsurprisingly puts Park's assassination at the central focus, but the surprise is that he places it right at the midway point. This isn't a spoiler, by the way - The President's Last Bang may be a fictional take on that fateful night, but Park's death has been in the history books for years. While some might appreciate the film's political satire of that particular period (apparently, Park's son was uncomfortable enough to take the filmmakers to court over it), the genius of the film lies in the fact that one can know nothing about Korean history and still find this film immensely entertaining.
     To those who don't expect the "spoiler", the film seems to open with three central characters: President Park (Song Jae-Ho), the chief of the intelligence agency KCIA Director Kim (Baek Yun-Shik), and the KCIA chief agent Ju (Han Suk-Kyu). Park has a penchant for all things Japanese, and enjoys drinking parties with female entertainers, and beating up university students; Kim is a faithful civil servant whose health has deteriorated quickly because of the job; and Ju is a hard-ass field agent that is tired of mundane jobs such as getting rid of girls that Park has bedded and chauffeuring girls that Park will soon bed. All three will come under the same roof that night, with Kim losing yet another struggle over the stance the government should take against protesters. Humiliated, he decides to order Ju and his right-hand man colonel Min to gather up men to kill Park once and for all.
     However, The President's Last Bang doesn't end at the assassination. In an unconventional two-act structure, Im splits the film between the events leading up to the assassination and those occurring afterwards. The opening sets up the internal politics amongst those under Park and the events leading up to the assassination. Once the deed is done, the film shifts to Kim attempting to control the cabinet (for democracy, he claims) while his underlings struggle to deal with the mess he made. In fact, Park doesn't even have more than 20 lines of dialogue in the whole film, despite the fact everything that happens surrounds him. While men in black suits double-crossing each other may not sound like your idea of entertainment, Im places plenty of sharp satire and dark comedy throughout. Perhaps the absurdity of the satire, such as the fact that no soldier seems to know what their superiors look like, does go a little overboard for a subject that isn't so far removed in history, but the effectiveness of the comedy is what makes The President's Last Bang stand out from your usual over-serious historical film.
     As shown by the balance of comedy and compelling characterization, Im's writing is sharp, but Im also shows that he is an accomplished visual director as well. The director employs several extended sweeping long takes within the house, showing the film's central stage with impressive technique. In one particular shot, the camera moves from Park's party to the rooms next to them, showing every obstacle that would stand in the assassins' way. It would be considered showy if Im had just left it at that. However, he brings things full circle by showing the same rooms in another long take from a different angle, this time depicting the bloody aftermath. It's a simple visual motif that shows how much creativity and thought was put into every single aspect of the film.
     It's rare that I give such consistent praise to one film, but even the acting is stellar in The President's Last Bang. Baek Yun-Shik's deadpan performance as Director Kim is a hybrid of a delusional sociopath and a puppy whose pride has been hurt. The image of him running around the lawn screaming for a gun in the middle of the assassination is one of the film's comedic highlights. On the other hand, Han Suk-Kyu continues to shed his good guy image with a fun performance as a fixer with a mean streak. Despite his introduction as a cruel and possibly deadly secret agent (think a very bitter James Bond with no supervillain to stop), he eventually becomes the closest thing to the film's moral compass. As Ju grows increasingly trapped by his situation, the more he sheds his cruel persona, showing traces of the honorable man inside. Kim may be the center of the film, but Han's performance as Ju is the highlight.
     Perhaps I am unqualified to fully appreciate a film like The President's Last Bang. I felt like I picked up a sufficient portrait of the times, with shots of torture rooms and streets emptied by martial law. However, I also know that one does need to be fairly familiar with history not covered by the film to understand the multiple layers of the characterizations. On the other hand, that is also its greatest cinematic strength; Im doesn't need to explain beyond the opening subtitles for audience to "get" what he is trying to convey (though restoring the 4 minutes of black and white historical footage the court ordered to be eliminated would've helped). Nevertheless, internal politics and the ineffectiveness of government are universal themes that Im exaggerates to the point of absurdity. In fact, some of the film's events are so absurd that one can't possibly believe The President's Last Bang to be more than a work of fiction. Then again, stranger things have happened in the course of history. (Kevin Ma 2007)

Notes: • Park Chung-Hee's son, a politician himself, took the filmmakers to court over roughly 4 minutes of historical footage that bookend the film. The footage reportedly features clips of student demonstration and Park's funeral. While the footage was removed (replaced with a black screen), the Supreme Court would later reverse the ruling. However, the footage was not reinstated for the DVD version this reviewer watched.
Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
KD Media
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable Korean and English Subtitles
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen