Former President Park Chung-hee, a man who ruled over South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, is a highly divisive figure in the country’s history. So is his right-hand man and eventual assassin, Kim Jae-gyu.
The upcoming film “The Man Standing Next,” starring Lee Byung-hun and directed by Woo Min-ho, offers what its creators say is a faithful depiction of the 40 days leading up to the president’s death. “I was pumped up after reading the script and felt that it was a well-polished film noir, even though it is based on a true story,” said Lee during a press conference about the film in Seoul.
Lee plays Kim Gyu-pyeong, the fictional lead character based on Kim Jae-gyu.
Based on a nonfiction book of the same name, the original Korean title literally translates into “Directors of Namsan,” referring to the directors of the now-defunct Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
Lee Byung-hun speaks during a press conference for “The Man Standing Next” in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)
The spy agency, founded after Park came to power, answered directly to the president and has been accused of numerous politically charged crimes, including kidnap and torture, mostly in the Namsan area. Former President Kim Dae-jung, one of Park’s biggest political rivals, was perhaps the best-known victim of the agency.
Veteran actor Lee Sung-min plays the character inspired by Park Chung-hee, called only “President Park.”
Despite the different names, the film is about the true story of Kim Jae-gyu -- the chief of the spy agency at the time of the assassination -- and his predecessor Kim Hyong-uk, who in this picture is named Park Yong-gak. It is Park Yong-gak who sets the events in motion by traveling to the US after losing power and testifying before the US Congress, dishing up dirt on the administration.
“When I read the book 20 years ago, it was so shocking that I read it in one sitting. Eighteen years of modern Korean history that I didn’t really know about unraveled before me, and I vowed to one day make a movie about it,” said director Woo.
He said the timing of Park’s revelations to the US politicians was the only major change made in the cinematic adaptation -- the actual event took place two years before the assassination, not 40 days. “The content of the original was so vast, so I decided to depict the 40 crucial days. Why the incident (the assassination) happened is what interested me the most,” he said.
Playing opposite Lee is Kwak as Park Yong-gak, the president’s onetime confidant, who turns on him after being ousted from the administration.
“Usually when acting, it is possible to anticipate the other (actor’s) movement. With Kwak, that was impossible. It was as if he were completely throwing himself into the situation,” Lee said of his co-star.
Another person who went all in was Lee Hee-jun, playing the head of the president’s security team, a character inspired by Park’s loyal bodyguard Cha Ji-chul. The usually slender actor put on 25 kilograms to depict the famously heavy Cha.
Kwak and the rest of the cast said they made efforts to be faithful to what actually happened, so as to not distort history.
“I kept thinking that there is not enough material (on real-life people). I kept pondering (over the character) as to how I should depict him, up until the very last shooting,” said Kwak.
“We had to act in a way that was close to reality,” Lee said. “I think playing a real person based on a real-life event can help the audience connect more with the film. In that sense, I think it will be a very powerful film.”
“The Man Standing Next” opens in local theaters in January.
By Yoon Min-sik