The historical drama-thriller The Man Standing Next was release earlier last year during Korean’s Lunar New Year. This holiday plays a major role in the country, being a family centric time where they gather to watch movies on cinema or TV together. It is the reason why there are plenty of movies released during this point of the season.

The movie has been selected as the South Korea’s national contender for 2021 Academy Award in the best international film category. This political thriller was directed by Woo Min-ho and starred by Lee Byung-hun, which is already familiar with worldwide movie-goers for his prior roles on franchise movies ‘G.I Joe’ and ‘R.E.D. 2’. It becomes one of the best performers during pre-pandemic times as it was released in January, proven by its $36.6 million earning.

The Man Standing Next follows the story that observes Park Chung-hee, the late South Korean President circa 1970s. It semi-fictionally based on the President’s last 40 days before he was assassinated on October 26, 1979. Thus, it was predicted to serve a cinematic lesson for Korean history for global audience who may lack ties to the event.


The Man Standing Next: Synopsis

The film serves as reinterpretation of the assassination event in 1979 by utilizing Shakespearean tragedy style. It is actually based on the book with a same title.

The Man Standing Next

The Man Standing Next via

The Man Standing Next lasts for 114 minutes of duration, in which Kim Kyu-pyeong (played by Lee Byung-hyun) is being the center of story during the 40 days period that leads up the assassination of President Park Chung-hee (played by Lee Sung-min). Kim is the director of Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which was practically the right hand of President during that period, just like his predecessor in the agency Park Yong-gak (played by Kwak Do-won), prior to obtain power for South Korea’s military Coup.

President Park had been ruling the country for as long as 18 years, by 1979. Plenty of citizens were protesting for him to leave the position – an idea that was aligned even with his imminent allies. This sparked the beginning of story, as Kim was sent by the President to United States to meet with former director of KCIA, Park Yong-gak.

This trip was meant to get rid of Traitor of the Revolution, a manuscript of memoir that contains all the illegal and obscure operations of South Korea’s government. The opening of this document would lead into Koreagate investigation by U.S Congress, were Park Yong-gak testifies in front of them. The tension rises as the power-hungry parties stifle political maneuvers severely.

However, in the South Korea, Kim Kyu-Pyeong also faced conflict with Lee Hee-joon (played by Kwak Sang-Cheon), a trusted security that was relied heavily by the President. The Man Standing Next’s plot bulks when Lee Hee-joon started to act with various power moves.


Characters and Castings

The real-world Park Chung-hee holds a divisive presidency views up until these days. The half of his authority was comprised by amending constitution government into extremely authoritarian work, where he holds a whole control of military and media. He’s forever going to be remembered as brutal dictator to some but also prosperity bringer to the others. Despite the controversy, he’s well praised for nation’s economic growth, not to mention that his daughter, Park Geun-hye was elected in 2013 as South Korea’s first female president.

The character within the movie is inspired by the only somewhat-not-fictionalized figure of the President who ruled the country with his iron fist after gained power through 1961 coup – until the assassination occurrence in 1979.

Other than Park Chung-hee, the other The Man Standing Next characters are inspired by slightly fictionalized names from the real-life counterparts. For instance, Kim Gyu-pyeong is based on Kim Jae-hyu, who’s indeed the KCIA chief who killed the President during one October night. Given the assassination order for Kim by South Korea’s military, it’s hard to disclose his motivation, whether it’s the hunger for political change due to authoritarianism, self-exasperation, or mixed between both.

Here is the key characters and casts of The Man Standing Next:

  • President Park Chung-hee played by Lee Sung-min

Character based on the South Korea’s 3rd President, Park Chung-hee, and the father of South Korea’s 11th President, Park Geun-hye.

  • Kim Gyu-pyeong played by Lee Byung-hun

KCIA’s director, the fictional protagonist main character that based on Kim Jae-gyu who held similar position politically.

  • Park Yong-gak played by Kwak Do-won

Former KCIA Character based on former director of KCIA, Kim Hyong-uk.

  • Lee Hee-joon played by Kwak Sang-Cheon

He is the chief of President’s security team, which is based on Cha Ji-Chul, the loyal bodyguard of Park Chung-hee.

  • The French Henchman played by Eric Bernard


The Reception

The Man Standing Next premiered on January 22, 2020 in South Korea, in which it led the box office up until February 4, 2020. During three days of its release, this political thriller movie was able to attract up to 1.12 cinema viewers, proving its popularity during the holiday season of Lunar New Year. It is successfully garnered $36.4 million of gross profit after being launched locally before the pandemic.

movie scene via

On the prestigious Blue Dragon film awards, it receives no less than 11 nominations from 10 categories, including the best picture, best director, best actor, and best supporting actors. The director, Woo Min-ho, received the honor of Korean Association of Film Critics’ best film award, along with Lee Byung-hun as the starring actor who won best actor from the same awards. At 25th Chunsa Film Art Awards, The Man Standing Next also won best actor and best supporting actor categories.

Internationally, there’s no doubt that the lack of immediate living memory of Park Chung-hee presidency will affect the audience’s reception. Still, it holds itself as superior and tense politic historical thriller movie with packed plot. As the evidence, it gathered $113,527 on its opening week on United States. It was also selected to represent the entry of South Korea for 93rd Academy Awards in the category of best international feature film.

This movie has effectively gained high approval rating on Rotten Tomato website with 75% based on 8 expertise reviews, as the average ratings weigh at 7.88/10.


The Movie Reviews

The movie touches several themes including twisted loyalties, hidden agenda, and ambition. However, in general, it could be said to be less engrossing than those themes may suggest, with tensing pace only started during the hours that approach murder event.

At one glance, a brief comparison with Othello and Iago may conclude. The real-world Kim Gyu-pyeong is a renowned figure that mostly recognized for being assassin of Park Chung-hee, who then was executed for crime against government. This may shadow the Machiavellian plot of Shakespeare’s worth, with a support from striking performance of Lee Byung-hyun.

The Man Standing Next follows the sampling, being a piece with tight and building scheme, beginning from the insignificant political predicament, to the dark rendezvous, with the sprinkle of gut-stirring actions. The prepared final is considerably tense, even turn into outstanding brutal action as Kim Gyu-pyeong negotiates the last bargaining request to the President.

This movie cinematography is handled by Go Nak-sun, who previously had worked in Taxi Driver, a masterpiece in terms of film shot from recent Korean movies. The expanding background of movie shooting locations in Europe and US definitely helps, but what helps even more is the Go’s technique to convey murkiness of the nights and facial close ups.

As the conclusion, the streamlined movie style that showed in The Man Standing Next has doubled as its strength and weaknesses. The excellent acting attracts its viewers to decidedly follow the complicated narrative. However, the intensification of its theatricality makes it less realistic for a movie that supposed to serve flesh and blood.


What to Watch Next?

The Man Standing Next carries captivating, serious, and suspenseful plot that deals with assassination, politic world, crimes, presidency, state affairs and dishonesty. These issues are common to be found in historical thriller drama films. Director Woo Min-ho previous movie, Inside Men (2015), is also based on dirty politic background story.

You may have heard of some resembling movies such as The Spy Gone North (2018) and The President’s Last Bang (2005) from Korea land, as well as Killing Kennedy (2013), Since (1966), and Night of the Pencils (1986) from Hollywood.

The President’s Last Bang especially brings familiar premise, as it focuses on the assassination of President Park Chung-hee as well. However, The President’s Last Bang puts emphasize on the nonsensicality of total political power by relying on what the recent movies incorporate a lot: black comedy.

Compared to The Spy Gone North, another parallel to this movie, they both have somehow equal thrill and suspense. However, Woo Min-ho’s work seems to execute it better. It probably has something to do with the difference of setting place too, as The Spy Gone North was centered more on North Korea.

In the end, it is safe to say that The Man Standing Next walks on the common path that Korean movies walk on in terms of historical story: it brings extreme details on the material but stands firm on fictionalizing the characters to gather more positive response from the audience.