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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

Im Sang Soo: Unloading both barrels at the president

Special to The Japan Times

The interview with Im Sang Soo takes place in a karaoke booth in the basement of the Paradise Hotel. The tacky ambience reminds me of the dining room where the assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee takes place in Im's movie, "The President's Last Bang" -- the subject of the interview.

Pusan Film Festival: Im Sang Soo
South Korean film director Im Sang Soo is unapologetic about his portrayal of former leader Park Chung Hee in ``The President's Last Bang,'' which was shown in its original, unexpurgated version for the first time at this year's Pusan International Film Festival. COURTESY OF PIFF
Pusan Film Festival: The President's Last Bang

The 44-year-old director sits at the head of the table, smoking languidly. I ask him about the lawsuit brought by the late president's son, Park Ji Man, to prevent the film's release, and about the judge's subsequent order to cut news footage that opens and closes the movie. "What she said is totally bulls**t," Im says in English, referring not to Park's son but to his daughter, Park Geun Hye, who is planning to run for president herself. "The stated reason for the suit," he continues in Korean, "is that in the news footage of President Park's funeral at the end, Mrs. Park appears, and she didn't want to. But it was clearly a political lawsuit instigated by the Park family and her party."

On Aug. 10, the Seoul Central District Court reversed the ruling on appeal, thus allowing MK Pictures to rerelease the movie in its original form. Im believes the appeal succeeded because "the political pressure had lessened."

"The President's Last Bang (original version)" premiered at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival. Documentary portions, which in addition to the funeral contain footage of protests against Park, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979, add context to Im's version of the assassination. This is important since he feels that young South Koreans don't know how repressive Park was.

Im's film is a comically lurid take on the killing, portraying the Park regime as an extended mafia family and the presidential Blue House as the South Korean equivalent of the Playboy Mansion. The director stands by his version. "All the people are real," he says. "And everything that happens in the film really happened. Only the dialogue is made up."

Some of that dialogue is in Japanese. Park and his cohorts, including the director of Korean intelligence (KCIA), Kim Jae Kyu, who carried out the assassination, grew up during the colonial period and were shaped by their military experience under the Japanese. Among themselves, and especially when they become emotional, these men speak in the guttural Japanese often associated with samurai and yakuza. They revere bushido and get all teary-eyed when they hear enka.

"That was exactly the way they were," Im insists. "During the colonial era there were Korean insurgents who fought against the Japanese, but there were also Koreans who hunted down these insurgents on behalf of the Japanese. President Park belonged to this latter group. He killed Koreans who fought for independence, and he actually became the president of the country and ruled it for 18 years. That's the biggest tragedy."

Im admits taking liberties with the historical record. When he was killed, Park was being entertained by a famous Korean singer. Officially, she sang Korean folk songs, but Im has her sing Japanese pop songs. "She was considered at the time one of the best enka singers anywhere, even in Japan, so I believe she sang enka that night. I don't believe the official reports, and no one has ever challenged that scene, so I think my version is right."

A more important mystery is Kim's motive for killing his boss. In the movie, he seems to make the decision spontaneously, after Park gives a lecture in which he advocates more brutal measures to stop student protests. "Each person who sees the film will have to decide for themselves why he did it," says Im. "Some think he was standing up for Korean democracy. Some think he was mad. The reason is not important to me."

What is important to Im is that the audience sees Kim as being no different than Park or any of the other members of the regime. The assassination sets off a blood bath in which the presidential guard, the KCIA and the army all battle one another. It's like a gang war, except that some wear military uniforms and others dark suits and sunglasses. There's a slapstick quality to the violence that plays up the absurdity of the situation. Though the assassination was viewed as being political, the movie conveys the idea that it was sparked by personal resentments and vendettas. As a result, it looks like a classic yakuza thriller.

Im smiles. "To me, they're all yakuza. All the people in the film, all the people in that government. Pure yakuza." The director, however, points out that he doesn't like gangster movies and, in fact, insists he's never even seen a yakuza film. "But I know the style."

Given this style and the themes it supports, the movie's reception in Japan should be interesting, but no release date has been announced yet. "Actually, I know exactly when it's going to be released in Japan," Im says conspiratorially. "Next year. Right before the (South) Korean presidential election."

See the main story on this year's Pusan International Film Festival.

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