REVIEW: The Man Standing Next (2021)
The Man Standing Next is loosely based around the assassination of Park Chung-Hee, who served as President of South Korea between 1963 and 1979. He was well known as a dictator who sought to silence his opposition and gain complete control over the military. He was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, one of his closest allies, who was later hanged for committing this murder. This film dramatises these events and uses a considerable amount of creative license to fill in the gaps where there is no factual information available. Park Chung-Hee becomes President Park (Lee Sung-min) and Kim Jae-gyu turns into Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun) and the film presupposes that there had always been underlying tension between the two. Some will call it historical fiction, others will argue that it is a docudrama. In the end, that doesn’t really matter when it comes to producing a compelling drama and, on an entertainment level, it does not always deliver the goods.
It is most effective as an exploration of the curious dynamic between a dictator and his closest advisors. Park seems to follow the maxim, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” and works to throw his advisors off and stop them from pinning him down on any issue. On his part, it is a smart move to give his biggest rivals a taste of power, thereby neutralising them as a threat. He can offer them a considerable amount of authority and power, but he can never fully trust them. Their bonds seem to exist because of their awareness of the fact that any attempt to take out Park could topple the power structure that has given them a sense of security. After an assassination, there is a desperate scramble for power and Park’s underlings seem to be aware of the fact that a military coup d’état would destroy their chances at becoming a dictator. They might be executed by members of the new government and they exist in a society where their titles no longer mean anything. If there were any indication that they could easily slot into Park’s position, they would not hesitate before murdering him. There is no trust between any of these men and this means that every line feels as though it is calculated to send a message. All of the fraught tension that swirls around in the government meeting scenes, is enough to increase your heart rate and remind you that this is set up as a thriller of sorts.
The film is so successful in making observations about the behaviour displayed by political advisors, that you keep waiting for the dialogue to feel more specific to this era or these different individuals. So much of it sounds unbearably generic and rather television movie-esque at times. The use of exposition is especially troubling, as it destroys the illusion of the filmmakers trusting the audience to follow along with the story that they are telling. Rather than finding sly, subtle ways to drop in information about new characters, they typically spew out a bunch of biographical information in a completely unnatural manner. The introductions will begin with them announcing that they have known the main character for years and consider them to be a very close friend. This only makes it all the more befuddling when they proceed to speak to them as though they are going through some sort of interrogation. None of the conversations are pitched at the right tone and because most of the characters behave in a similar way, it is hard to get excited about many of the arguments that occur. You typically need a clash of personalities for a dispute to be engaging and The Man Standing Next does not deliver the goods in that regard.
If it is a bit patchy on a couple of levels, Lee’s performance is a model of consistency. He plays Kim – a stoic, emotionally repressed straight arrow who might not be as squeaky clean as he thinks he is. One suspects that he might be patterning his performance off of Gene Hackman’s legendary portrayal of Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974). He has the same stony-faced expression and indignant response to every instance in which a person brings up his dark past. It is one of those intensely focused performances that Lee frequently turns out. He is firmly in his comfort zone but there is nothing wrong with doing what you are good at. He relies on his strengths and trusts that his natural charisma will keep the audience on his character’s side when he isn’t being entirely sympathetic. He can’t hold a candle to Hackman, but he also suffers from the fact that he is not working with talent on the level of Francis Ford Coppola.
The film also invites comparisons to The Conversation because it aims to create the same environment of fear and claustrophobia that Bill Butler, Walter Murch and Richard Chew brought to that classic. The focus on seemingly mundane government buildings and their overwhelming blandness is used to reinforce the anhedonia that these characters experience. As they drink alcohol or sit down for an early lunch, they do it with a sigh. All of this imagery is reminiscent of the party scene in The Conversation, but it lacks the 1970s authenticity that could have driven the point home. Everything looks a little too shiny here and there is none of the griminess that seemed to define New Hollywood cinema. Every character should have been sweating profusely and not everybody needed to be wearing bell bottom jeans and giant sunglasses whilst smoking their cigarettes. They went a little too far in adhering to 1970s stereotypes and risked entering into Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) territory. This is always a problem with period dramas but with great craftsmen on hand, this can be avoided.
Fans of Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s oeuvre will be irresistibly drawn to something like this. With more promotion, this could even achieve popularity with those who exist outside of that realm.