Remember in 1979 when the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency just up and shot the President dead one night?
Me neither. In fact, no one told me that ever happened. It seems like the kind of thing you’d hear about a country. But according to South Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Im, it’s a taboo subject. Which is why he made a movie called “Folks Back in Those Days”. That’s how the title is translated from it’s Korean title. But the US release is called The President’s Last Bang, which is where you’ll find it on Netflix.
Which you should do. It plays like a cross between a thriller and a black comedy, about a million miles away from a somber historical story like, say, Joint Security Area or Memories of Murder or The Host. For instance, it opens with a shot of a bunch of hot Korean chicks taking their tops off and it closes with a shot of the movie’s most enigmatic character just eating dinner. Everything in between moves among a set of different characters and different locations as the evening of the assassination unfolds through various stages of uncertainty, confusion, and resolve.
I hate to overuse this description — I can’t help but bring it up every time I talk about In the Loop — but there’s something so very Dr. Strangelove about The President’s Last Bang. It has an appreciation for the absurd without having to wink or point. It just lets the absurd be absurd. Because once you try to make the absurd actually absurd, once you start nudging, you end up with Oliver Stone’s W. Hey, look, Josh Brolin’s President Bush is stuffing his face with foot and Thandie Newton’s Condoleeza Rice is talking like Urkle and Richard Dreyfus’ Dick Cheney is exactly like Richard Dreyfus’ villain in Red, and it all pales in comparison to watching the real life Bush demonstrate his drive for the press in Farenheit 911, which isn’t unlike President Muffley asking the Soviet premier to turn his music down. Leave the absurd alone. Let it be. It’s already absurd, so making it eat a sandwich doesn’t add anything. Sang-soo Im knows this and it makes his movie great.
The style is very Western, with a careful sense of pacing and tension and even an eye for action sequences. But the setting is very Korean, and very Cold War. You won’t hear communism and Japan mentioned this way in any American movie. Like Denmark and Spain, South Korea is one of those countries with its own distinctive eye for moviemaking. Yeah, yeah, Taiwan, Japan, France, England, whatever. My theory is that Denmark, Spain, and South Korea have been on the periphery of enormity for so long that it has done something to them, something that bubbles up in their movies. They’re countries that have spent centuries watching terrible spectacles roll around them, occasionally lapping at their feet, like a bystander on a rock outcropping when a tsunami drowns everyone on the beach. The bystander is the guy to tell the story.
But never mind my penny-ante analysis of the national psyche of countries I’ve mostly never been to. If you want to see a latter day game of thrones, allow me to recommend The President’s Last Bang as political theatre of the absurd at its best.