Released in January 2022 just weeks before the presidential election in South Korea, writer-director Byun Sung-hyun’s fourth directorial effort, Kingmaker, is as much a character drama as it is a political film.
It is 1961, Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun), a local pharmacist who fled the North, meets Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), an eloquent small-time politician who has lost four elections in seven years. Immediately, Seo sees that they share not only ideals but also troubles: when the ruling Republicans label them as “commies”, little does it matter to the people how the two want to help the nation.
Although slightly concerned about Seo’s lack of hesitancy to play dirty, Kim accepts Seo to be a part of his campaign staff – partly because he needs someone like him, partly because Seo too seems dedicated to his country. Given his Northern background and, to say the least, questionable strategies, Seo has to operate out of sight, earning himself the nickname “The Shadow” – a recurring visual motif in cinematographer Jo Hyeong-rae’s composition of light and shadow.
With the help of Seo’s dubious stratagems, the idealistic and upright Kim finally starts climbing up the political ladder, ultimately running for the top job. Thus begins the electoral battle between New Democrat candidate Kim and Seo versus the incumbent Republican president Park (Kim Jong-soo) and his goons. The first two acts of the film oscillate between backroom political manoeuvres to petty electoral bribes of rubber shoes and flour. The third act and the real battle, however, becomes apparent when Seo and Kim eventually try to answer that age-old question: “does the end justify the means?”.
Having tried his hand at a variety of material from the 2012 romantic sex comedy Whatcha Wearin’? to the 2017 crime thriller The Merciless, Byun’s grasp of genre cinema receives further validation with this adequately favourable political/historical drama. Byun’s second-time collaborator Jo Hyeong-rae’s rich camerawork switches seamlessly between black-and-white newsreel-like footage to colour scenes (although the overserving of zoom-in extreme close-ups can feel a bit distracting at times). The success of the film is also attributable to the taut editing of motivated, smooth transitions and the score that captures the subtle and the grandiose moments equally well.
The “based on real-life events” aspect of it certainly adds more to the film. The audience, especially local viewers, can easily see through the thinly-veiled characters. Moreover, similar political systems help to bridge the gap and avoid alienating audiences abroad. The fact that the online audience of this year’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, chose Kingmaker for the MYMovies Award speaks to how the Korean-specific context does not constitute a barrier in understanding and appreciation. (Also, for viewers who’ve seen George Clooney’s 2011 feature, The Ides of March, Kingmaker will seem relatively familiar.)
Kingmaker is a story of crushed idealism but of a slightly different, nuanced kind. It is not a story of someone who learns political skulduggery, for that is granted at the very beginning: our kingmaker’s lack of qualms playing dirty is what opens the door of politics for him. Instead, it is partly concerned with what follows after, with the room where it happens, with how the sausage gets made.
Although political and historical in subject matter, Byun and co-screenwriter Kim Min-soo ultimately chose the relationship between the two male leads as the film’s primary focus. As such, its success depends largely on the charisma and chemistry between them. Rest assured, Kingmaker comes stacked with a heavyweight cast. Veteran Sol Kyung-gu shows his range once again by successfully transforming from a boisterous gangster in Byun’s breakout hit, The Merciless, to a contemplative politician. Known internationally for his role in the 2019 sensation Parasite, Lee Sun-kyun brings the Machiavellian Seo to life in a powerfully memorable way. The two actors’ interaction alone is thoroughly enjoyable and breathes life into the abstract ethical concerns of the movie.
However, it is also here that the film betrays its flaw. Same as the Cannes-premiered The Merciless, Kingmaker is also essentially a story of male bonding. It’s a man’s world where the women are relegated to the background, reduced from character to prop. While Kim’s wife (Bae Jong-ok) receives only a few lines of dialogue, Seo’s wife and child are barely present in the story.
In Kingmaker, Byun knew better than to try and offer ready solutions to historical controversy or philosophical concerns. His next project, Kill Bok-soon, is set to be a Netflix-distributed action thriller, once again featuring Sol Kyung-gu and Cannes winner Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) as a single mother/hitwoman. Hopefully, in this instance, Byun will tell an equally good or even better story and give a more balanced representation.
Written by Amarsanaa Battulga