• Golden Globe Awards

The Man Standing Next (South Korea): Interview with Director Min-ho Woo

The viewer of the political thriller The Man Standing Next is asked to delve into one of South Korea’s most intricate moments of its modern history. A moment when one dictator falls only to be replaced by another. Nevertheless, the film offers an osmotic affinity with the signs of the times. The plot closes in on one character – Kim Gyu-pyeong (Byung-hun Lee), the director of the brutal Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) – who finds himself in a quandary between pledging continuing loyalty to the dictator President Park and realizing the latter’s incorrigible failure to live up to the promises of the popular revolution 18 years ago. The director, Min-ho Woo, elucidates the personal choices and general circumstances that made it important for him to bring this story to the screen.
Why did you feel compelled to bring this story to the screen now? 
I’ve longed to bring the story of the KCIA and President Park’s death to the screen for quite a long time. While the event is one of the most important and dramatic moments in modern Korean history, it has been made into a film only once, and that film had gone through difficulties in the release. I felt that the event should be re-examined from various angles. Unlike some expectations, the process from the production to the release was quite smooth.
Why is this event important to the modern history of South Korea? In the end titles, we find out that another dictatorship replaced the one that ended with the assassination depicted in the movie.
It is a representative and tragic example of how hard it is to achieve democracy, but how easily it can be stolen. There had been those in military power that wanted to engage in politics and take away Korea’s democracy from the people whenever there were rifts within the society. The April 19 Revolution, which toppled down the long-lasted dictatorship of the first Korean president in 1960, was violated by a military coup just two months later. A similar incident was repeated in 1979. The person who directly pulled the trigger on President Park is described as a character – Kim Gyu-pyeong – in the film, but there were also the resistance and sacrifice of numerous citizens, such as during ‘Bu-Ma Democratic Protests.’ But again, the chance to end the dictatorship was taken away by another group of soldiers. Fortunately, Korea ended the vicious cycle with the constant effort of its citizens. However, such a situation is not only limited to Korea and is still in progress somewhere in the world. Even though we’ve escaped it once, it does not guarantee that we are safe from it eternally. I think that remembering history is like putting a latch on the entrance to a place we never want to go back to.
Was President Park’s “revolution” done in the promise of something good or better than before? The main character acts in the name of the revolution. 
On the surface, yes, it did. When the first Korean president had stepped down due to the civil revolution, the Korean society was in confusion by then, as it was in the very early stage of the democratic republic system. President Park, who took control of the government by a military coup, vowed to step down once the social stability is secured, but that did not happen.
What was the US involvement in this story? There seems to be a lot of information we are not privy to.
During the last years of Park’s regime when the film takes place, it was President Jimmy Carter’s term in the US and the relationship was not very good. There was a quite well-established political relationship during Nixon’s presidency, with Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War and also an increase in Korea’s foreign currency earnings. But when Carter’s presidency began, this relationship came apart. President Carter publicly criticized Park’s oppressive ruling and mentioned the withdrawal of US troops from Korea. The Fraser hearing scene at the beginning of the film, in real-life, took place to reveal the KCIA’s lobbying of the US congressmen. It is known that in that report, there is also a mention of a possible connection between Korean religious organization and the Watergate Scandal. It seemed that one of the reasons for Park’s distrust of the KCIA was its friendship with the US. During Park’s last years, the KCIA seemed to change its ways regarding human rights and was less oppressive to the opposition politicians, which might have made Park think of President Carter.
There is a different ethos in your film than what we usually see in western action movies. In the latter we see characters motivated by greed and power. In your film, money is less catalytic than honor and loyalty. Any comments?
I tried to fully reflect the characteristics of the real-life figure of Kim Gyu-pyeong, rather than a particular ethos for my film or Asian film. Various records, evaluations, and testimonies of the people seem to show that he had the desire for power and valued honor and loyalty. He was an interesting individual with various characteristics; some say that he had a gentle side, but at the same time, a very strong self-esteem. In situations where important decisions needed to be made, he would sometimes feel confused and reverse his decision. For example, the scene where Kim bursts his emotions and points the trigger at the person who seemed to have hurt his self-esteem was based on a passed-on anecdote. I tried to portray these different dimensions of the character, focusing on his complicated and detailed psyche.
What do you want the American and the global audience to get out of your film? Do you think that Koreans will see it in a different light than non-Koreans?
I wanted the audience to see how tragedy occurs when huge power is abused by a few people in enclosed spaces, without the consent of the people. As said earlier, this is not only in the past but could be happening in progress currently, so whether Korean or not, the audience will be able to see from a similar perspective.
Korean cinema has taken off in a big way in the last years, culminating in the amazing victory of Parasite. How do you see yourself in this wave of new cinema? What is your ultimate ambition?
As being part of the Korean cinema, Parasite’s winning of the Palme d’Or and at the Academy Awards is sincerely delightful and something to celebrate. However, I do not particularly have a new goal or ambition amid this new wave. The only thing in my mind now is thoughts for my next film.