Although the onscreen assassination of a certain North Korean leader has dominated recent headlines, South Korea is actually in the lead for seeing its heads of state killed off on film. In 2005, a black comedy called The President’s Last Bang depicted the assassination of South Korean autocrat Park Chung-hee and raised a massive storm of controversy, resulting in a series of lawsuits between President Park’s family and the film’s producers. At first a court censored three minutes and fifty seconds of the film and ordered the producers to pay Park’s only son ₩100,000; however, after two appeals both the censorship and fine were reversed, although the filmmakers were ordered to insert a title explaining that the film was purely fictional.
Park is perhaps the most fascinating character in contemporary Korea’s political history. He seized power in a 1961 military coup and ruled South Korea with an iron fist for the next 18 years, first by proxy through a figurehead president and then in his own right after winning an election in 1963. In 1972 Park further consolidated his authority by declaring martial law and promulgating the Yushin Constitution, which gave him absolute power over the nation. Although he committed numerous human rights abuses, Park is also widely credited with launching South Korea’s modern economic miracle and strengthening the country’s position against North Korea. As a result, contemporary public opinion on him is split—many, especially older generations, see him as a savior who lay the foundation for South Korea’s global prominence, while others condemn him for his authoritarianism. Thus, it’s fair to say that Park’s legacy looms large on Korean political stage: in fact, South Korea’s current president is his oldest daughter, Park Geun-hye.
During his time in office, Park saw several unsuccessful assassination attempts. These included the infamous 1968 Blue House Raid by North Korean commandos and a 1974 attempt by a North Korean sympathizer that ended up killing his wife instead. However, Park’s luck ran out on October 26, 1979. On that day, Kim Jae-kyu, Director of the KCIA (which Park had created in the semi-mold of the American CIA to prevent counter-coups and suppress dissidents), fatally shot Park at a small banquet in Seoul. This incident is the subject of The President’s Last Bang; the film centers around the hours right before and after the assassination as seen primarily through the eyes of KCIA Director Kim (Baek Yun-shik), his lieutenant Chief Agent Ju (Han suk-kyu), and a trot singer (Kim Yoon-ah) and college student (Jo Eun-ji) brought in to be President Park’s (Song Jae-ho) female company.
Like Park’s legacy, the “10.26 Incident”, as it is called in Korea, is subject to much debate and controversy. Director Kim’s motives were, and continue to be, unclear: was it a premeditated attempt based on opposition to Park’s dictatorship, or an impulsive act based on a power struggle between Kim and Presidential Chief Bodyguard Cha Ji-chul? The film seizes upon these uncertainties and accentuates them with perfect dashes of dark humor. In The President’s Last Bang, the 10.26 Incident is adapted with great effect into a absurdist drama, something of a cross between In Bruges, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and All the King’s Men.
In this regard, while prior knowledge of historical context is certainly helpful for enjoying the film, it is not absolutely necessary. There’s ample slapstick, for instance a scene in which Chief Bodyguard Cha (Jeong Won-joong) trots around with a heavily decorated military jacket but no pants. The “bang” in the film’s title is a double entendre: President Park’s womanizing, while never shown in its full glory, kicks off the film and runs like a comedic venereal disease in the background, suffering outbreaks at opportune moments.
While without Park Chung-hee there would be no President’s Last Bang, the President has a rather unremarkable portrayal in the film. He has far less screen time than Director Kim, the real star of the story, and in half of that screen time he is a shrouded corpse. If anything, this adds to the movie’s value, as it is quite ironic to see who is supposed to be Korea’s most powerful man either dead or cuddling affectionately with the two female companions he receives for the banquet. Park has no agency in the film, but on the other hand, perhaps the agency that other characters like Director Kim appear to have is just an illusion as well. Kim and his associates are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watching Hamlet from a distance. While they have their own antics, they, and Hamlet too, are simply puppets being played on a larger stage.
As Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildestern are Dead, “we cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” The President’s Last Bang has plenty of bridges being crossed and burned; in the wake of it all is the residual odor of badly aimed gunshots and a slight taste of tears. It is a dark, satirical drama with all the hallmarks of good theater, a thought-provoking take on a contentious subject that strengthens Korea’s cinema as adeptly as Park vitalized its economy.
The President’s Last Bang (Korean: 그때 그사람들)—South Korea. Directed by Im Sang-soo. First released February 2005. Running time 1hr 42min. Starring Song Jae-ho, Han Suk-kyu, and Baek Yoon-sik