Glasgow Film Festival Review: Min-Ho Woo’s ‘The Man Standing Next’

The Man Standing Next Movie Film

Korea’s Oscars entry for 2020, The Man Standing Next, is a classically-styled political thriller that takes audiences right inside South Korea’s power chambers during a period of massive upheaval. It’s not the easiest film to break into, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the tale, but it rewards those who commit with a tense period drama and a grim vision of how political power really functions. 

Directed by Min-ho Woo, The Man Standing Next examines the days leading up to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The narrative follows Korean CIA director Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun) as he attempts to carry out the president’s demands while keeping one eye on Kwak Sang-cheo (Lee Hee-joon), the president’s warmongering head of security.

For viewers who aren’t up on their modern Korean history, The Man Standing Next does a good job of filling in the vital details. You don’t need to understand the full historical context to immediately understand that this is a story set within a house which is about to fall. The president has been in charge for some 18 years, and it’s clear that no-one believes he will be able to hold on much longer. It’s also clear that Park senses this himself and has become more paranoid as a result, trusting only those closest to him and playing them off one another to keep himself protected.

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The Man Standing Next Movie Film

Park’s favourite manipulation is straight out of the Tony Soprano playbook — it involves presenting one of his underlings with a particularly incendiary problem and telling them “You have my full support, do as you please.” They naturally take this as an unspoken order to take decisive, brutal action — whether that means murdering a troublesome journalist or bludgeoning a political rival into submission. Afterwards, having never explicitly ordered the attack, the president can deny all involvement in it and condemn those who carried it out in the most sombre terms. This way, Park gets all the benefit of brutalising his enemies, plus the political advantage of keeping his hands clean in public.

However, this win-win strategy comes back to haunt Park when one of the agents he betrays decides to retaliate by traveling to the U.S. to testify against his whole regime. Knowing that this could be the nudge which finally brings the walls down around them, Kim is sent after the renegade agent to stop him from spilling the president’s darker secrets while Kwak uses the situation to carry out a plot of his own. Each man makes the desperate, reckless moves of those who know the game is almost up.

Audiences who have gotten their first taste of Korean cinema in recent years, thanks to films like Parasite, might be surprised to find how stylistically and structurally conventional The Man Standing Next is in comparison. It’s an old-school espionage thriller, befitting its 70s setting — a world of billowing trench-coats and dense conversations between serious-looking men.

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The Man Standing Next Movie Film

This aspect of The Man Standing Next is amplified by a lead performance which is steely to the point of being almost unreadable for much of the tale. And, on the one hand, this seems absolutely befitting for an intelligence agent whose life depends on ice-cold decision making and a perfect poker face. On the other hand, it can make the tale harder to engage with emotionally when the audience’s way in is so closed-off. Both emotionally and narratively, The Man Standing Next is an easy story to get lost in.

But the effects of this are diminished by the fact that, while the implications of its narrative are tied up in all kinds of political complexities, the story itself is contained largely to the private social drama of a few powerful men. The Man Standing Next takes viewers right in to the room where the action happens — the private, intimate spaces where the nation’s future is hashed out over cigarettes and soju. And what’s found there is a petty web of jealousy and status-jockeying that wouldn’t seem out of place in a high school cafeteria. Kim and Kwak live and die by which of them the president asks to sit with him at dinner. It’s one great quest to make it to the popular kids’ table, except it’s carried out through high-level espionage and political assassinations. This lends an added layer of tragic absurdity to the film’s explosive finale, as a petty rivalry resolves itself in geysers of blood. A nation is shaken to its core by a two-man popularity contest.

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The Man Standing Next Movie Film

Kim’s thickly-veiled interior life ultimately pays off well because viewers are left unsure whether his actions are the result of a deep-held love of country, an overwhelming desire to see justice done or the simple self-preservation of a man with no more moves to make. A new chapter in the nation’s story begins with a muddied sense of why the last one ended, leaving whoever seizes power next free to bend the narrative according to their own desires. And history rumbles on.

Part of the reason for Parasite’s wide-ranging success is that it tells a story that’s specifically Korean and thematically universal — a tale of haves, have-nots and the corrosive effects this inequality has on our society. The Man Standing Next is even more particular to its nation, but viewers who clamber over the one-inch high subtitle barrier will find a no less resonant depiction of the world behind it — one where so many of the seismic events in our lives ripple out from the choices made by those in power according to their whims and grudges. 

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.