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'Bang' is coolly comic gloss on Korean intrigue

If the 1979 assassination of South Korean leader Park Chung Hee was really as easy and comical as it looks in ''The President's Last Bang," one has to wonder how the man stayed in power for nearly two decades. Writer-director Im Sang Soo's coolly stylized political satire doesn't provide a lot of answers, unfortunately, but it does show how the future of a nation might turn on a few drunken insults thrown around at a high-level dinner party.

Park, who took office by military coup in the early 1960s, was known for wielding a big stick while presiding over some of the most significant industrial development in his homeland's history. ''The President's Last Bang" catches up with him in the final hours of his iron-fisted reign, after the economic glory has given way to public protests, and critics have come to see him as an out-of-touch, self-indulgent antique with a weakness for pretty young things.

Im (''A Good Lawyer's Wife") assembles his story as confidently as if it were an official report. The players get little introduction, and proceed in the detached way of characters whose lines and actions are more fate than fiction. There are many glancing shots at complex relationships with the United States and North Korea, and often the comedy is in shorthand. But even viewers who are undereducated in Korean history should respond to Im's bold, slapstick reconstruction of events, because what the film lacks in depth it makes up for in Hong Kong-style punch, with vivid cinematography and powerfully choreographed action.

The key figure in this thriller is Director Kim (Baek Yun Shik), Park's beleaguered, physically ailing, and emotionally spent head of central intelligence. Fed up with accusations that he's not cracking down hard enough on demonstrators, Kim is pushed past the brink during a dinner with the president (Song Jae Ho), a pair of lively female companions (Jo Eun Ji and Kim Yoon Ah), and two senior advisers named Yang (bespectacled Kwun Byung Gil) and Cha (Jeong Won Jung, uniquely unsympathetic as the president's bullying security chief). Bruised by their barbs, Kim immediately mobilizes his own men -- led by agents Min (Kim Eung Soo) and Ju (Han Suk Kyu) -- to show Park and his inner circle just how tough he can be.

It's an impetuous and vengeful act, but Kim argues that it's also long overdue and for the greater good. Who knows. Independent of the real-world politics at play, Baek's enigmatic KCIA director is a fascinating protagonist, even when his onscreen motives are too sketchy to be fully convincing.

That's pretty much true of the whole cast, actually. Forceful acting -- especially by Han as the brash Ju -- powers the story past its many thinly drawn characters.

The last ''bang" for this lecherous dictator turns out to be a chaotic, bloody affair. It's an absurd explosion, scariest because it appears to have been so random. And from Im's point of view, there are no winners when the smoke clears.

Janice Page can be reached at

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