Year after “Parasite,” South Korea pins Oscar hopes on “The Man Standing Next”

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SEOUL, Feb. 6 (UPI) — One year ago, the eyes of the film world were on South Korea, as director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made history at the Academy Awards by winning four Oscars, including Best Picture — an unprecedented feat for a foreign-language film.

This awards have been postponed this year until Apr. 25 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the South Korean film industry is hoping to strike gold again with its official entry into the international film category, The Man Standing Next.

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The political thriller by director Woo Min-ho is a fictionalized retelling of a crucial moment in South Korea’s history: the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979 by his right hand man Kim Jae-gyu , the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Woo told UPI that he had long wanted to bring the story of Park’s killing to the screen, ever since reading a best-selling nonfiction book on the subject, The Directors of Namsan, by journalist Kim Choong-sik, while studying at a university in the 1990s.

“While the event is one of the most dramatic incidents in modern Korean history, it has been made into a film only once [The President’s Last Bang, 2005],” Woo said. “I felt the event should be re-examined from various angles.”

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The Man Standing Next, which adapts Kim Choong-sik’s book, tells the story of the 40 days leading up to Park’s assassination, crisscrossing from Washington D.C., and Paris back to Seoul, as a power struggle comes to a bloody climax.

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The film centers around KCIA head Kim Jae-gyu, fictionalized in the film as Kim Kyu-pyeong, as he clashes with a rival security chief and tries to navigate a growing scandal abroad and a rising democracy movement at home.

The lead role is played by Lee Byung-hun, a Korean star who’s also made a mark in Hollywood through films such as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and The Magnificent Seven.

Motives for the real-life killing remain shrouded in mystery, and the film doesn’t draw any easy conclusions as to what ultimately led Kim to pull the trigger on Oct. 26, 1979.

“In Korea, people mostly view Kim Jae-gyu from two different perspectives — an assassin caught in jealousy and ambition for power, or a fighter for democracy that killed the dictator for a greater cause,” Woo said.

“Personally, I think he had a very complex psyche.”

The film struck a chord in South Korea, where it topped the box office in early 2020 before the pandemic shuttered most cinemas, but Woo said he believes that its themes of power and betrayal will also resonate with international audiences.

“As The Man Standing Next deals with Korean history, I thought the story might not be familiar to international audiences.” Woo said.

“[But] the story of the second-in-command assassinating the person in power would be familiar in Western cultures, like Brutus and Caesar. I also have the impression that the interest in political content has grown, as politics has recently been a big issue in America.”

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The hypermodern South Korea of today seems light years away from the repressive era of the 1970s, but Park Chung-hee remains a larger-than-life figure, said Kim Choong-sik, whose book emerged from a series of articles he wrote as a reporter for The Dong-a Ilbo.

On one hand, Park still is revered by some as the driving force behind South Korea’s spectacular economic growth during the nearly two decades of his rule, Kim explained. On the other, he is reviled for the brutality of his regime and its suppression of human rights and democracy.

“Park Chung-hee is still alive” Kim said. “People are still fighting over him. Those who support him think he’s the foundation of Korean society. Those who are against him see him as a villain.”

The legacy of Park’s killer, Kim Jae-gyu, also remains unsettled. He was captured after the assassination, convicted of treason and executed in 1980. But many see his brutal act as heroic, and in May his family requested a posthumous retrial to clear him of the treason charges.

A final verdict around the assassination will not be resolved soon, said Kim Choong-sik.

“Kim Jae-gyu is not a hero or a villain — he’s somewhere in-between,” Kim said. “After time passes, and new generations emerge in society, there may be a conclusion. But for now, it’s hard.”

The moral complexity of the story was a reason that the Korean Film Council chose The Man Standing Next its official Academy Awards entry in November, calling it “an attractive film featuring a rather dark side of the history of South Korea.”

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Woo, whose credits include the 2015 hit Inside Men, said that the selection left him “very surprised and a little bit embarrassed.”

The director said he’s mindful that Parasite’s stunning achievements last year have brought South Korean cinema further into the global spotlight.

“I’ve thought that the interest in Korean culture — including TV series and K-Pop — has been growing intensely, and I felt that, for films, Parasite has played a crucial role in this,” Woo said.

“I can’t tell what exactly American audiences will see in [The Man Standing Next],” he said. “But I hope that it serves as a chance to think of what kind of a tragedy occurs when power is misused by a few people without the consent of the citizens.

“I believe this is still relevant to this day, not just the past.”

The 93rd Academy Award nominations will be revealed March 15, with short lists announced Tuesday.