“Intriguing ideas and an interesting setting get lost among a dense, cryptic script and a lacklustre narrative.”
The Man Standing Next is a slow-paced, drawn out espionage thriller. With a huge cast of characters, each with their own loyalties and motivations, it feels very similar to the intrigue of a royal court. Appropriate given it’s the fate of an entire nation, and millions of its citizens which are being discussed in hushed tones, in the hallowed halls of a presidential mansion. Certainly, it’s more in the vein of John le Carré than a James Bond, action/adventure story. It’s an ambitious style of storytelling to pull off, and unfortunately it doesn’t always hold up.
Co-writer and director Woo Min-ho begins this true story in the court rooms of the US congress in 1979. There former-Director Park (Kwak Do-won) of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency is testifying against the incumbent Korean president. President Park came to power following a successful revolution in 1961 and has since become a de-facto dictator. Following his testimony, he meets with the current head of KCIA, Director Kim (Lee Byung-hun), to go on walk around Washington. Park and Kim exchange a few cryptic comments about discrediting or possibly assassinating President Park, before stopping at the Lincoln Memorial. In the shadow of this giant statue Park mentions how in the US a president is like a God, before Kim replies that it’s not quite the same for Korea.
The action then returns to Korea where, it has to be admitted, it never really picks up the pace of this opening scene. Even all the dialogue remains as cryptic and dense. This latter element may be an unfortunate side-effect of watching something in translation, where the sense of intrigue gets somewhat lost. The lofty ideas of a President as a God, as well as some other classical references to corruption and betrayal, dangle over the film but they do little to liven up the drama. It’s not that the film is difficult to follow, it folds out in a manner similar to Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy where small acts of espionage create a snowball-effect of mounting tension. However, there is certainly some element missing (either in translation or in the script) to successfully drive the plot forward.
Even Lee, who has proven himself many times as a charismatic lead capable of carrying a film, feels a little lacklustre here as Director Kim. He has one of the most interesting roles; playing a man who is straddling multiple loyalties and constantly balancing crucial decisions in his head. Yet all this is lost by a film that chooses to downplay nearly every moment. Instead, a lot of the tension seems to take place in imagined spaces. A lot of conversations revolve around what the country could be like had things gone differently, or if certain decisions were made. As a result, most of Lee’s performance is restricted to thoughtful, silent pauses following debates over the merits of killing or saving President Park.
Again, this may be something that’s lost given it’s a period of history that many may not be fully aware of and it is unfair to discredit the film purely on these grounds. The situation being depicted is clearly one of political complexity which (without any clear context from the film) this reviewer has little to no knowledge of. However, it is undeniable that the film has pacing issues. After long drawn-out espionage sequences there’s the occasional burst of action, but they feel out of place and unearned. Worst of all this affects the climax. Rather than the release of tension it’s meant to be, the end of a well-constructed pot-boiler, it arrives as though it’s on rails; obvious from the beginning and unsurprising when it finally happens.
Dir: Woo Min-ho
Wri: Woo Min-ho & Lee Ji-min
Prod: Kim Won-guk, Sarah Kang
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Kwak Do-won, Lee Sung-min, Kim So-jin
Header image courtesy of Showbox