Monday, 19 May 2008


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There are films that you encounter that are much more interesting to read and think about than to actually watch. For myself, the Korean political satire The President’s Last Bang (2005) falls into this category. It is a work so entwined with Korean society and politics that it cannot really be discussed without any contextual knowledge. I do not think it is a great movie, but it is certainly fascinating. After watching the DVD this past weekend, I also read the new book on Im Sang-soo published by the Korean Film Council, which provided much needed information on the place of the film within contemporary Korea.

To begin with, the version of the film available on DVD in Korea is cut. The President’s Last Bang is based on a presidential assassination that took place on October 26, 1979. The original version begins with documentary footage of political protesters along with the following narration:

“Park Chung-hee. In the autumn of 1979, his 18th year of rule since the military coup, unexpectedly large-scale demonstrations by students were held in Busan and Masan.
They resisted the oppressive administration and demanded democratization, but the Park administration mobilized the military and easily suppressed them. A suffocating false tranquility filled the air, and the citizens had no choice but to hunker down and live their lives to the best of their abilities.
Then, one day, out of the blue, Park Chung-hee was shot.” (32-33)

However, a court order eliminated this footage and narration, as well as documentary footage at the film’s conclusion that included:

1. Park Geun-hye in mourning garments in front of her father’s coffin
2. Large-scale funeral procession
3. Memorial address by Cardinal Kim Su-hwan
4. Weeping old men and women (41)

The absence of this material, which was eliminated on the argument that it could prove confusing to the audience that this was a fictional version of events, vastly alters the point of Im's critique. As Im himself states: "The Korean court ordered the deletion of the most important real images. It’s ridiculous.” (103) This is especially true in regards to the last images of people mourning Park's death:

“I knew what kind of person Park Chung-hee was, but when I saw his funeral, it was a real shock. This wasn’t the Joseon era, and it was thought of as truly uncivilized for adults to be beating the ground and wailing. Twenty-five years later, and still many people worship Park Chung-hee. This is wrong. I really wanted to bury Park Chung-hee for good. In the end, this is not a film about Korean society in the old ways, it’s about the Korean society of now, the masculine society.” (102)

Im's comments here echoed the reading put forth by Korean film scholar Jung Ji-youn in her essay, "“Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang: Death and Corpses." She begins by asking the question of why this film came when it did and links it to Slavoj Zizek's notion of the second death. For Zizek, there is both physical death and symbolic death. The problem was that Park may have been physically dead, but was symbolically of great importance.

“The economic crisis in Korean society in the late 1990s led to a crisis in the patriarchy and masculinity, and this gave rise to a reaction of political conservatism. Around this time, the mythology of Park Chung-hee began to be highlighted as explicit discourse in all areas of politics, society and culture. The fantasies of the right wing and the public summoned him as a mythical figure. . . The President’s Last Bang was a film that arrived at precisely this point in time. It arrived neither too late nor too early, but perhaps at a relatively precise time. Somebody needed to kill Park Chung-hee once and for all.” (31)

Of course, as Jung acknowledges and as Im found out, symbolic killings are sometimes more difficult than committing actual murder. The conservative press, including Korea's largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, attacked the film, as did Park Chung-hee's son, who sued for defamation of character. The best evidence can be found in the censorship ruling, which did symbolic violence to Im's text and prevented his full meaning from being expressed.

Upon the film's initial release, Huh Moonyung compared the film to a "genre painting." Jung agrees with this description because of the attempt by Im to deconstruct Korean history and myth:

“If the film is likened to a genre painting, it is because the ordinary and humble desires and fears of the people who were there at that bloodcurdling moment are depicted as nakedly as if the black cloth covering the sacred icon were torn away.” (34)

This puts The President's Last Bang in stark contrast to popular Korean films and television dramas when Korean history is continually mythologized. Early in the film, Im cuts from a shot of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a 16th century Korean hero famous for battling Japanese invaders, to a close-up of KCIA director (and eventual Park assassin) Kim being examined by a doctor (Figures 1 and 2). Im is declaring his intentions to look behind the idolatry towards authority figures that he sees as still plaguing Korean society.

Discussing his approach to the material, Im states the following:

“I think that Martin Scorsese made GoodFellas as a response to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. He’s saying, ‘What are you talking about? The mafia’s a bunch of lowlifes.’ In my opinion, Scorsese’s depiction of the mafia is the right one. But cinematically, I think The Godfather is better. I had this conversation with Kim Woo-hyung (the film’s cinematographer): ‘I’m going to show a world of humans like in GoodFellas, and I want you to film it like The Godfather.” (106)

This quote is intriguing for at least two reasons. It shows how Im viewed his historical characters (as low-life gangsters); but I feel it also gets at why I found the film flawed. Although one can interpret Im's discussion of Scorsese and Coppola many ways, watching the film I understand Im's basic point. This film could have been a black comedy a la GoodFellas, but ultimately Im wanted something more serious in tone: “I didn’t make this film so that people would laugh and enjoy it. It may really seem funny that they look like lowlifes off the street, but the movie isn’t really funny, is it?” (107) There is a solemn tone that interferes with any easy enjoyment, which is why the often made comparisons to Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) are not really accurate. As Im explains: “It’s right to feel unpleasant after watching this film. I made it that way intentionally.” (112)

However, the overall style of the film comes closest to invoking not The Godfather, but rather the Coen brothers (who are also cited as an influence) and, within Korean cinema, Park Chan-Wook (the influence of The Godfather is mostly in terms of cinematography, as the above figures show, rather then editing or mise-en-scene). Huh makes a comparison of Im to Lee Chang-dong (15) in their similar attempts to deal with social issues in a popular form, but Im's actual style is far more conventional than Lee. Im shoots many scenes with the type of functional cutting seen in most popular films. Furthermore, his breaks with this style have a dazzling flourish achieved with digital CGI that recall the clean, spectacular images of Park, the Coens, or even Scorsese. Take, for instance, the lateral camera movement showing the KCIA's torture chambers (figures 3 and 4), very similar to Park's use of the technique in Oldboy and very different from Lee's treatment of torture in Peppermint Candy, or the overhead tracking shot surveying the carnage from the assassination (figures 5-8) which recalls the ending of Taxi Driver (an apt homage, ironically, since Travis Bickle's original target in that film was a political figure). What results is a work that is admirable in its deconstruction but rather nihilistic and cynical in the slickness of its design.

Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile film and one that improved for me on second viewing, always a good sign. And it is also a necessary intervention into the Korean social and political environment. Coincidentally, over the weekend I also saw the New German Cinema omnibus work Germany in Autumn (1978) at the Seoul Cinematheque. Germany in Autumn was made in response to the murder of a government official by the terrorist group the RAF and the subsequent suicide (or murder) of members of the group, a situation that had thrown German society into crisis. The opening section is directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and is the best part of the film. Fassbinder's contribution concludes with him arguing with his mother over politics and democracy and asking her what her ideal form of government would be. She responds by saying, "authoritarianism with a kind and benevolent leader." The Korean people mourning the death of Park Chung-hee, as well as the contemporary conservative press mythologizing his memory, seem to agree.

Huh Moonyung and Jung Ji-youn, Im Sang-soo (Translated by Colin A. Mouat) (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2008)


Michael Kerpan said...

I would love to see the uncensored version, but I found even the censored version of PBL quite impressive. What it made ME think of most was Costa-Gavras's "Z", though I think Im's film was much better in almost every respect.

Marc Raymond said...

I agree it's an impressive work, even if it doesn't reach the level of the best films of recent Korean cinema (a high standard, admittedly). I also much prefer it to "Z", although it's been a long time since I've seen that film.