Aside from Lars von Trier's blowsy America-trashing "Manderlay," "The President's Last Bang," directed by controversy-magnet Im Sang-soo, was the most controversial entry in the 43rd New York Film Festival. Or at least it would have been, if American audiences had even the most passing knowledge of recent Korean politics. "Last Bang" tracks the final 12 hours in the life of Park Chung-hee, the former tyrannical president of South Korea who rose to power in 1961 following a military coup--and was murdered by the Kim Jaekyu, director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), on October 26, 1979. This monumental incident is played for grand farce, with bumbling intelligence agents plotting against a dictator who mundanely muses about the details of torture, or blithely inquires about the status of his request for "special" seal testicles. Needless to say, the film caused quite a stir in Im's native country (as did his previous efforts), and Park's relatives successfully sued to excise the documentary footage of the late president that once book-ended "Last Bang." In town for NYFF screenings, Im sat down with indieWIRE to discuss politics and his latest work.
indieWIRE: When "The President's Last Bang" came out, there was quite a lot of controversy. There were issues with the public, issues with President Park's family suing over footage used in the film. Could you please talk about that?
IM SANG-SOO: My producer released "Last Bang" for four months in Korea. And the most powerful, ultra right-wing journalists and newspapers gave really bad, violent critiques on the film. I was shocked. Mr. Park had died 25 years ago, but there's something he left behind, maybe a mentality. But more concretely, Samsung, Hyundai, they were born with Mr. Park's regime. They now control Korea, so they don't want to see their own facts, their own face on film. The son of Mr. Park sued me for libel over this film, and I strongly believe that the court judgment against me was affected by political pressure because Park's daughter is the [chairperson] of the opposition party [GNP] and a strong candidate to assume the presidency. The suit became a huge issue over the 9 o'clock news. The producer expected it would bring at least some commercial success--because all publicity, even bad publicity, is good, right? But my studio withdrew their support and refused to distribute the film. Then after the release, some leftists attacked me for never having done anything for democracy in contemporary Korea. Many people sacrificed themselves for democracy, and now it's my obligation, my duty, to use my democratic freedoms to make this film. Some people said it was too early to make this film, but it's been 24 years now, and by that logic, there's no right moment for anything. I was very conscious of the fact that there was going to be a big controversy.
iW: The film is very violent and yet at the same time very funny. In that way it begs comparison to Dr. Strangelove because it too treats history as farce. Was that an inspiration when making the film?
IS: I don't know. I just worked according to my instincts. I didn't try to make it comical. I know that it's a big compliment to have that comparison made, but frankly speaking, I've seen some clips of it, but never the whole film of "Dr. Strangelove." When I get back home, I'm going to go watch it. As far as "Dr. Strangelove," [Kubrick] did his film intentionally as some kind of farce, but I didn't do that. I never intended it like that; I just wanted to be realistic. Realistically, at that time, those characters were that stupid, that silly. Like they referred to torture, etc. as if they were just normal, everyday things. Park was indifferent, but was very elegant--he was a kind of king. But I don't really think the film is political. I think it's more of a mob film. Before making "The President's Last Bang," I studied The Godfather and Goodfellas. It can be enjoyed without the politics on many levels. It's political like a Mafia film is political. But every regime, even the current Bush regime, has certain qualities of the mob.
iW: You were born in 1962 and lived the first part of your life under Park's regime. How did that experience influence the way you made the film? How much of the film is from historical records, and how much is your own invention?
IS: When Mr. Park died, I was a high school boy, and my father was a jobless journalist who was against his regime. At the time, when many Korean people were mourning his death, my father was very pleased. That was the kind of family I lived in, and that influenced me to make this film. Because of my history, I could satirize the characters. I feel like my father and I made this film together. During Park's era, journalists weren't allowed to write the truth about his government. The public never really knew what kind of person he was, and so the press buried that incident, and no one who was there could tell about it. They were executed after a brief military trial. There are only two documents left: the trial document and the criminal investigation papers that everybody can look up. But after 25 years, who's going to believe that document is true? It's so absurd! Every character is a real character, but the dialogue is very different from the official documents. I collected the dialogue from Mr. Park's old speeches. But everything you see really happened. Every gunshot that was in the film was based on the investigative report. The judge at the trial wrote a fictional scenario of the events, but I'm a better screenwriter, so you should believe me.
iW: In a lot of your films, you're dealing with contemporary Korean issues, like modern morals and female sexuality. How was it approaching issues from the country's past?
IS: I don't find any difference between the contemporary material I used in my previous films and in this film, because 18 years of Park's dictatorship was followed by 12 years of General Chun's dictatorship. In those years Park was living like a zombie still and affecting us. It looks as if democracy has been established, but under that, we are still suffering from the effects from 30 years of dictatorship, but we are suffering from the same political issues as in the past, ones that are still unsolved. With this film I wanted to find out why his influence is still lasting today.
iW: Amidst this tragedy of men who are butting heads with each other, you've got these two women off to the side who are treated very differently. Could you talk about the male/female problem in the film?
IS: Good question. All through the film, the men are fighting with a macho, samurai mentality, with their juvenile love of violent stories. Then there were two women who actually witnessed the assassination, who deal with the murder in a very different way--like how human beings are supposed to act. They're the only two characters that deal with that incident correctly. While everybody's fighting for their own interests and survival, they are very different characters because they're afraid and concerned.
iW: Any future plans?
IS: I made so many enemies with this film that I'm going to make a love story next.
[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]