The President’s Last Bang

cast: Jae-ho Song, Suk-kyu Han, Yun-shik Baek, Won-jung Jeong, and Sang-ho Kim

director: Im Sang-soo

103 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden

October 1979. South Korea’s president Park Chin-Lee arrives with his cronies at his official retreat, the Blue House, satisfied that opposition has been subdued. Amongst those already there are Kim Jaegyu, his KCIA chief, and the chief KCIA agent Ju. After 18 years of dictatorship Chin-Lee feels secure in his grip on the country but, even as he sits down for a meal, a final insult means Chief Jaegyu brings forward plans to end the brutal regime abruptly and violently…

The original, translated name of Geuddae geusaramdeul (aka: The President’s Last Bang) is ‘the people of that time,’ or more concisely ‘those people, then.’ The change, made for the English language market, unfortunately replaces a title significant as the name of a particular song, played that fateful night by a singer invited to entertain the doomed presidential dinner party. The flippancy of the substitution is perhaps one reason why western critics have pointed up the black humour of Im Sang-soo’s film so consistently. Formerly best known for light sex dramas such as Chunyudleui jeonyuksiksah (aka: Girl’s Night Out, 1998) and Nunmul (aka: Tears, 2000), The President’s Last Bang is the second in a trilogy of films dealing with the situation of South Korea from the 1970s to today and has proved to be, at least at home, the most controversial of Sang-soo’s work. Apparently descendants and supporters of the dead president’s party took exception to some documentary elements contained within the movie, which were duly cut from the initial Korean release as well as for some exports. (The UK version is complete.) Ironically, the director was also attacked by left wingers for creating a too-favourable portrait of a despised dictator. To such an extent, as the director attests in the interview which accompanies Last Bang on disc, that he was given a personal bodyguard after the premiere.

Assuming much of the political background to Im Sang-soo’s drama will be relatively new to them, UK viewers will find much less to get worked up about, and the film contains none of the censorable material which has occupied the BBFC in the films of Korean directors such as, say, Kim Ki-Duk. Having said that, whether its the presidential bodyguards coming without bullets, the KCIA chief dozing with a hole in his sock or the two noodle eaters overhearing the President’s autopsy with open mouths, there’s no denying the elements of black humour in Last Bang, even if such moments should not be made too much of. Ultimately it’s a political drama we have here, the staging of which the director sees as influenced by such mafia-grounded Hollywood titles as Goodfellas and The Godfather. At the same time, as the director says, it attempts to “analyse the psychological burden” of the dark years of tyranny as well as “provide a funeral for the president and all he left behind.”

Chauvinistic and fascist, the memories of Chin-Lee’s regime still pervade South Korea today. The director was able to base a good deal of his film on the notes of the detailed official enquiry following the incident at the Blue House. For other elements he used his imagination. He and his art director for instance did not hesitate to jettison the idea of an accurate representation of the Blue House as it was, in favour of something more aesthetically appealing. From this point of view Last Bang differs in its documentary feel from such related films as Downfall, a film where the claustrophobic, last days of a regime are also examined. But while President Chin-Lee is the centre of attention of the Korean film, his character and psychology is not explored in depth, apart from a revealing discussion over the weaknesses of western notions of democracy. Instead, Sang-Soo focuses a good deal on the KCIA chief and his main agent, and one is never quite sure between them where fact ends and director’s fancy begins.

Therein lies the film’s weakness. Its in the lack of a convincing documentary feel, allied to characters at the drama’s centre who may have been historically present and participant in unfolding events, but at best struggle to rise about the whimsical elements of their portraits (Ju’s compulsive gum chewing for instance). At worst, the writing suggests little of the angst such a plot surely engendered – something which the recent Valkyrie managed for instance, with all its faults. Last Bang ends with a dispassionate voiceover, wrapping up the fate of those involved and some shots of the state funeral. At the end of Downfall, although we know or can guess the fate of many, we are critically involved learning what became of those present. Last Bang’s closing narrative, curiously uninformative, leaves us mildly disinterested, even given our lack of local political knowledge.

Having said that, Im Sang-Soo’s film is reasonably absorbing throughout, and it pulls off some noteworthy moments – such as the Da Palma-esque ceiling-high tracking shot, which travels slowly above rooms and various corpses. There’s another long tracking shot, this time a horizontal flow through the Blue House, which arguably shows one influence of Goodfellas.

The DVD includes a host of trailers from the same source as well as a relatively brief, if interesting, interview with the director. A brief historical note or two, putting events in context – democracy in South Korea was not restored until after a further massacre and another spell of dictatorship – would be useful for the casual viewer.