One reason why South Korean cinema has become so popular among American cinephiles is that South Korea is more like the U.S. than just about any other Asian country. The architecture, fashion, class structure, religious order, and even the dominant filmmaking styles are all familiar, and aside from a few stray strands of Buddhism and a propensity for uncomfortably non-stylized violence, South Korean movies aren't too tough for U.S. audiences to "get." Even Im Sang-Soo's funny, snappy historical satire The President's Last Bang only seems exotic because its complicated plot dramatizes the 1979 assassination of South Korea's dictatorial president, a figure largely unfamiliar to world-news-averse Americans.
But though The President's Last Bang is undeniably dense—with more than a dozen significant characters—the particulars aren't too tough to understand. It's 1979, democracy has broken down, the chief administrator has become an incorrigible lech, and some of his most trusted staffers are plotting to take him down. Song Jae-ho plays the president, Park Chung-Hee, who served from 1961 to his death in 1979, when he was felled in the wake of violent student demonstrations. Baek Yun-shik plays the director of South Korea's version of the CIA—more a secret police force than an intelligence-gathering organization—and Han Seok-gyu plays Baek's right-hand man, a cynical thug who plots with Baek to topple the regime. Im covers the president's last day in detail, from the mundane afternoon paperwork to the mad dash to secure power after his murder, but the bulk of the movie is given over to a little one-act, one-set play, starring the president and his inner circle at a tense, revealing dinner party.
The coup attempt that concludes that long sequence is shot with dazzling cinematic style, with long pans and overhead shots that Brian De Palma would be happy to claim as his own. But more valuable is Im's clear-eyed view of human nature at its basest. Nearly everybody in the movie is distracted by physical needs: They're hungry, horny, sore, and in need of the bathroom. The president is portrayed as completely corrupted and even maddened by his ability to bend an entire nation to the demands of his hormones, while his intelligence director is capricious and cranky, ready to lead his unprepared henchmen into a bloody fray because he's constipated. As the assassination's aftermath plays out—in a bureaucratic Seoul that looks uncannily like Washington D.C.—Im implies that the insurgent group of dyspeptics will be no better than the dyspeptics in power. For all the opulence of their homes and offices, they share a persistent cloud of stink.