New Asian Cinema:The Man Standing Next, South Korea

by Ting Ting Xu August 27, 2020
A scene from "The Man Standing Next"

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The HFPA’s Ting Ting Xu examines Asian film trends through standout films and the authors behind them.

After Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture, as well as the Foreign Language Golden Globe, films from South Korea received an unprecedented amount of attention on the global market. With the Korean New Wave, South Korea has been witnessing a robust wave of high-quality films. Locally made films often beat Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, and director Woo Min-ho’s latest period political piece The Man Standing Next is one of them. The film dominated the four-day Lunar New Year holiday weekend box office at the beginning of 2020.

The Man Standing Next has an intriguing story premise: the chief of a national intelligence agency assassinating the president of the country. It follows the non-fiction book about the assassination of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee on Oct. 26, 1979. By the late 70s, South Korea had been under Park’s absolute control for over 18 years. Park formed the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to secure his reign over the country. This government branch was accused of numerous politically charged crimes, including illegal espionage, kidnapping, and torture in the Namsan area. Protesting citizens and even some of Park’s allies thought it was time for South Korea to elect a new President.

The film takes place in the 40 days leading up to Park’s assassination. Former KCIA director Park Yong-gak played by Kwak Do-won escapes to the United States and uses the Koreagate scandal as a way to build interest in his tell-all memoir. President Park sends his current chief of KCIA Kim Gyu-pyeong, played by Lee Byung-hun, to the States to ensure that Park Yong-gak’s memoir manuscript never sees the light of day. Before his trip to America, Kim already believed it was time for Park’s administration to end. Then his encounters with American spies and Park Yong-gak made him more worried about his country’s future if President Park continued his rule. Facing a tough dilemma, Kim has to choose between “doing his job” by eliminating the president’s enemies in the most brutal way and being a shining light to end the country’s darkness. As Kim’s political maneuvering unfolds, the build-up to the final assassination gets increasingly tense.

Before The Man Standing Next, director Woo Min Ho helmed a political thriller Inside Men that focuses on the current corruption in South Korea and The Drug King starring Parasites’ Song Kang-ho and Sense 8’s Bea Doona. Cinematographer Ko Nak-Sun previously worked on A Taxi Driver, the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. He delivers a visual polish with blue-hued street scenes and overhead symmetry to build the suspense. 

The Man Standing Next is the second collaboration between actor Lee Byung-hun and director Woo Min Ho. They previously worked together on Inside Men. To western audiences, Lee is known for portraying Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe franchise and T-1000 in Terminator Genisys. Back home, Lee has received critical acclaims for his work in A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil and Masquerade, all of which are on the list of highest-grossing films in South Korea. Lee is a 5-time Best Actor winner at the Grand Bell Awards by The Motion Pictures Association of Korea. Also, he was the first South Korean actor to present an Oscar at the Academy Awards.