Once in a blue moon, a film comes along that’s both immaculately produced and oddly detached. On the one hand, Woo Min-ho’s historical espionage thriller The Man Standing Next is slick-as-butter. Its direction is sophisticated, and its cinematography crisp. It’s both Shakespearean in its epic tragedy and Hitchcockian in its nail-biting tension, and it reveals a little-known (to Americans, at least) part of Korean history.
On the other, it’s a protracted snooze-fest, with the aforementioned moments of genuine suspense cloaked by dense exposition, dry character development, and circuitous conversations that go on and on. It offers no respite for those unaware of what’s going on, nor does it allow one to catch up if one were to lose the thread of the convoluted plot.
Through the eyes of the Korean CIA (KCIA) director Kim (Lee Byung-hun), Min-ho traces the days leading up to President Park’s (Lee Sung-min) assassination in the fall of 1979. Early on, we learn that Kim’s friend Park (Kwak Do-won) has fled to the U.S. and is testifying against the president, “who’s making democracy a tragedy in Korea.”
“…Kim’s friend Park has fled to the U.S. and is testifying against the president…”
Kim is sent to deal with the situation. On his tail are chief of security Kwak (Lee Hee-joon) and a shadowy character named Lago (at least Min-ho wears his Shakespeare proudly on his sleeve), both vying for Kim’s position as the titular “man standing next” in line to the proverbial throne.
Political machinations, double-crossings, and betrayals unravel, with frequent nods to Hitchcock’s spy flicks, as well as 1970s political thrillers like All the President’s Men, filtered through a neo-noir prism. The first half of The Man Standing Next is pure setup and will undoubtedly alienate all but the most devout/erudite of history and spy movie lovers. A suspenseful set-piece in Paris that turns into a fight-inside-a-car sequence, and then a chase through the sparse French woods, picks things up significantly. The ending – the assassination itself – is taut and bloody and memorable.
The production values are top-notch, the film hopping from Korea to North America to France. Cinematographer Go Nak-seon does wonders with light and shadow, his eye for shot composition impeccable. Lee Byung-hun turns in an emotionally complex performance, but it’s Kwak Do-won as the by turns merciless and oddly relatable Park that runs away with the film. The rest of the cast feels weirdly muted, each character there to service the story as opposed to being developed in their own right.
To sum it up: fans of John Le Carré are much more likely to enjoy The Man Standing Next than those expecting Tom Clancy – and even those prepared for a talky intrigue may walk away with a headache. There’s no denying the filmmaking mastery on display, but perhaps Min-ho could make his future history lessons a little more approachable.
"…fans of John Le Carré are much more likely to enjoy The Man Standing Next than those expecting Tom Clancy..."