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Bringing the shock of a nation to the big screen: ‘The Man Standing Next’ tells the story behind the death of Park Chung Hee

Dec 13,2019
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From left, actors Lee Byung-hun, Kwak Do-won, Lee Hee-jun and director Woo Min-ho talk about the upcoming film “The Man Standing Next” at a press conference in Apgujeong CGV on Monday in southern Seoul. The film is scheduled to hit local theaters next month. [YONHAP]
Oct. 26, 1979, is a date that immediately rings a bell with most Koreans. It was the day that Park Chung Hee, the nation’s third president, was assassinated by his closest associate, Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).

The KCIA during the Park Chung Hee administration wielded almost unlimited and unchecked power to detain any sort of anti-government movement or pro-communist forces. Those in command of such a powerful organization were seen as trusted allies of the president, as they were the second most powerful political figure of the time.

So why the KCIA head would kill the president still remains something of a question mark in modern Korean history. In the upcoming film “The Man Standing Next,” director Woo Min-ho brings the historical figures to the screen to tell a story that answers the question “Why did he pull the trigger?” adapted from a non-fiction local best seller of the same title by reporter Kim Choong-sik. The film recounts the final 40 days of tension between the political figures before the assassination takes place.

Director Woo came across the book during his college years and always thought that it would be an epic tale to tell on screen. However, since it is based on one of the nation’s most shocking political events, he was initially hesitant to bring the heavy subject to the big screen.

“There were no books or articles describing the psychological state or the relationship between these figures that ultimately led to the assassination,” Woo said during a press conference for the movie held in southern Seoul on Monday. “So I’ve always wanted to do this. But I would have given up on making this film if Lee Byung-hun refused this role. I wrote and planned the script thinking of only Lee in the role.”

“Although it’s based on real events, I thought this film work was a very sophisticated noir,” said actor Lee Byung-hun who plays the lead character Kim Gyu-pyeong, who is modeled after KCIA director Kim.

The film is the second film project that Woo and Lee have worked on together, following the success of their first movie “Inside Men,” which was a huge hit in local theaters in 2015.

Unlike his simple-minded and straightforward character from “Inside Men,” the character that Lee portrays in this film mainly hides his emotions, not wanting his feelings to be used against him by his many enemies.

Woo and the rest of the cast were especially effusive about Lee Byung-hun’s acting skills.

“It couldn’t have been easy, because Lee’s character had to mask his emotions in front of others, but the audience still had to see the inner turmoil he is going through,” Woo said.

“I was awe-struck by Lee’s acting,” said actor Lee Hee-jun, who plays president Park’s chief bodyguard, Kwak Sang-chun. “My acting was more simple [and direct]. Lee’s character, on the other hand, had to conceal what he felt but simultaneously draw sympathy from those watching, which I think would be incredibly difficult to do.”

Actor Lee Hee-jun also had to put in a lot of effort to portray his character, including gaining 25 kilograms (55 pounds) for the role.

“When Woo gave me the script, he said that my character would be best portrayed if I gained weight,” Lee Hee-jun said. “But he left the decision completely up to me. After reading the script, I agreed with him.”

“Even when someone who is not an actor gains a lot of weight, everything from the tone of their voice to how they walk is different,” Woo added. “It was same for Lee Hee-jun as well. Through this film, the audience will be seeing a side of Lee that they have never seen before.”

Woo also praised actor Kwak Do-won for being very earnest on set, saying that Kwak was “always holding on” to his script when he wasn’t on camera. Kwak plays Park Yong-gak, who is based on Kim Hyung-wook, a former KCIA director who began living in exile in New Jersey in 1973 after his relationship with the president went south. Kim is known to be one of the key political figures who revealed a scandal involving KCIA agents bribing some American congressmen for favorable diplomatic conditions.

“I believe that the script holds all the answers to acting,” Kwak explained. “Just like students looking over their notes before taking an exam, I had all the conversations and discussions I had with the director and the cast written down in my script. That’s mainly why I was looking at the script [all the time].”

“The only tweak that I made for the film [that is different from actual history] was to bring the Koreagate scandal to the year 1979 when it actually happened two years prior,” Woo commented. “I thought the scandal was the real beginning of this story, but since I couldn’t fit the whole two years into film, I set the timeline differently for a more compact delivery. But other than that, the rest of the timeline and events closely mirrors what had actually happened.”

Lee admitted that the hardest aspect of playing his character was that very fact.

“We shot every scene knowing that it is all based on historic events,” Lee Byung-hun said. “We were extra careful to stick to the scripts and not to ad-lib in fear of distorting the figures or what had happened. We were referencing various records, testimonies and interviews about our characters until the very end of shooting the film. I hope our efforts are shown through the characters’ web of emotions and relations."

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]