K-History: Slapstick Political Thriller Skimps on Context


South Korean history may not be a mandatory part of the American grade school curriculum, but ignorance does not detract from the disorienting experience of The President’s Last Bang—a bloody Three Stooges account of the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chunghee by his Korean Central Intelligence Agency director Kim Jaegyu.

Having contributed a bracing zetz of tabloid crassness to the New York Film Festival, Im Sangsoo’s slapstick thriller—a dense scroll painted with an extremely broad brush—enters the marketplace. The President’s Last Bang confines its action largely to a single chaotic night, opening with a scene that mutatis mutandis might have been transposed from Where the Truth Lies—a gaggle of cuties hanging out in the presidential pool while their chaperone entertains no one in particular by reading aloud from a softcore romance novel.

Business as usual: One of the president’s gum-chewing henchmen kicks out a demure hooker and her pushy mama-san. The context is a bit sketchy. Park’s family evidently sued to remove introductory newsreel footage of ongoing political protests from the film. Thus, the president (Song Jaeho) is introduced babbling about his regimen of seal testicles—to clinch the point, there’s a staged political rally in which the point is emphatically made that Park is the nation. (The movie’s Korean title, taken from a song, translates as “That Lover of Mine.”)

The President‘s parade of officious fools, pompous tough guys, inept KCIA agents, querulous generals, and hapless bystanders can be a bit hard to follow without a scorecard. But once Park settles in for a banquet at the KCIA safe house, the scorecard, as well as the evening of geriatric karaoke with two not especially compliant hostesses, is soaked in gore. Who’s on first? The lights in the room are cut too soon; the self-appointed assassin runs out of bullets and has to rush out for another gun. (Baik Yoonshik, who plays the dyspeptic KCIA chief, was last seen here as the victim of a madman in Save the Green Planet.)

From mid-movie on, confusion escalates (along with one’s incredulity) as the body count mounts; a deadpan coda of haphazard prosecutions and executions only adds to the mystery. Was The President’s Last Bang diminished on its home turf by failing to provide a motive for these bloody events? Did Kim shoot Park because of a bad stomach, an imagined slight, a sudden whim? As the president enjoys showing off his Japanese, so the KCIA director has a propensity for paraphrasing Chairman Mao. Still he remains an enigmatic figure, confounding all rational sense of history by raising the possibility of an assassination without a conspiracy.