Have you ever had to choose between friendship and loyalty to country? That’s the test that Lee Byung Hun’s character faces in The Man Standing Next, a political thriller based on the events leading up to the assassination of President Park Chun-hee, in which he controlled South Korea for 16 years before he was assassinated by one of his closest friends, Kim Jae-Gyu. The movie made its debut stateside on January 24, 2020, in select cities.
KCIA (the Korean counterpart of the America CIA) is under the control of President Park (played by Lee Sung-min and based on President Park Chun-hee) and headed by Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung Hun, based on Kim Jae-Gyu). The organization is considered President Park’s right-hand agents, removing any obstacles that do not align with the President’s views and, in short, anyone who opposes him. It’s this frightening reign of terror that increases tensions with the US, seen as an ally but one that would not hesitate to remove anyone in power that adhere to the US’s goals. When former KCIA director Park Yong-gak (played by Kwak Do-won and based on Kim Hyong-uk) testifies before the UN of President Park’s regime and illegal wrongdoings, he becomes a target to be silenced. This event triggers the fateful 40 days leading up to President Park’s assassination and how Kim Gyu-pyeong is forced to choose between staying loyal to the president even as he becomes increasingly unhinged and paranoid and doing what’s right for the country.
Lee Byung Hun is right up in his alley with this character, having to play a man with a gruff nature who follows rules and the law to a tee. His stoicism doesn’t allow viewers to see outright changes in expression but rather subtle changes such as the look in his eyes or the inflection changes in his voice. It’s not easy struggling to do what’s right and to follow your leader, especially when the leader is basically the law. However, while watching Lee Byung Hun’s character, it can be a relief to know that he wishes to avoid any violence unless deemed necessary and even then, he is not comfortable with it. The same cannot be said for Lee Sung-min’s character, President Park, who will stop at nothing to silence his critics. It’s horrifying to see a leader who would try to destroy his own people to stay in power, even if there is no one left to govern. The maddening descent that President Park falls into is perfectly portrayed by Lee Sung-min and it’s all the more satisfying when Kim Gyu-pyeong realizes that nothing logical he says will get through to President Park and he begins formulating (out of character) how to stop the madness.
The Man Standing Next is not your typical movie, where most of the action comes from talk and thoughts (the last 30 minutes or so is where the meat of the movie is). As it is on the slower side, if you enjoy learning more about history and how some of South Korea’s dictatorships occurred, you should check it out; otherwise, you may want to occupy yourself and take breaks in between. The movie tends to drag a little long and some scenes can be cut out but it is nonetheless an enjoyable watch.