The opening narrative crawl of "The President's Last Bang" stoically informs us about how President Park Chung-hee (played by Song Jae-ho) brutally rolled back pro-democracy demonstration movements throughout his reign in the sixties and seventies. Then, as we get to the scripted part of the story, we learn that Park Chung-hee seems less like a tyrannical dictator and more like an eccentric rock star, complete wiith groupies and torture dungeons. Also he has a serious Japan fetish.
"The President's Last Bang" is a look into the deeply alien world of Park Chung-hee's inner circle in the immediate build-up to and aftermath of his assassination. For all the initial political staging, though, the actual assassination aspect of the story is played up like an absurd comedy of errors. Jae-gyu (played by Baek Yoon-sik) decides to murder Park Chung-hee in a moment of flippant and petty grumpiness. The goofy haphazard attempt succeeds mainly because Park Chung-hee's security detail naturally anticipated some level of competence and foresight from potential threats to the president.
The sheer level of abstraction in "The President's Last Bang" is the movie's main selling point. It's obvious that aside from Park Chung-hee himself no one actually has any idea where their political power even comes from. When the second half of the movie involves characters leaving the compound to do damage control in regards to the assassination, several discover to their great irritation that the military which more directly governs the South Korean state doesn't know who they are.
Indeed, for all the controversy "The President's Last Bang" provoked regarding its depiction of Park Chung-hee's personal foibles the most damning indictment it makes of the man is that it presents him less like a leader and more like a disinterested playboy. It quickly becomes clear following the assassination that the South Korean state didn't actually have a succession plan in case of Park Chung-hee's death. Which is especially ridiculous considering this wasn't even the first time someone tried to assassinate him.
These interpretations are very context-intensive, which is the film's greatest weakness. Without context, these events are meaningless. The original Korean title of "The President's Last Bang" more directly translates as 'those people at that time' which really does capture the movie's sheer arbitrary detachment. Its characters don't just exist apart from the South Korean state, they barely even interact with each other. Scenes of grotesque violence are handled oddly lackadaisically, with the occasional low-ranking character meekly suggesting that maybe this isn't such a good idea before reluctantly agreeing to follow orders anyway.
The movie even ends on that utterly perplexing note. We see the surviving characters whisked off to arbitrary fates having until then vacillated between such feelings as confusion, fear, and eventually irritation at the sheer illogic of their circumstances. The compound itself is a better defined character than any of the individual performances, with writer/director Im Sang-soo's long, deliberate camera pans over large empty spaces making the premises feel like a premature haunted house just waiting for the timely arrival of its ghosts.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on Blu-ray from YESASIA and on streaming from Amazon
Blu-ray (Normal Version) (En Sub)
Amazon Prime Video
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The President's Last Bang""
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