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Good Morning President -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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BUSAN, South Korea -- Given the continuing worries over North Korean nuclear capability and with the first black president in the White House, "Good Morning President" certainly has currency on its side. The latest by writer-director Jang Jin ("Welcome to Dongmakgol") is a wildly erratic comedy-drama about politics, ethics, the price paid for public service -- usually a personal one -- and whatever else seems to have struck Jang as apropos to capital affairs.

Because the film deals -- however briefly -- with Asian geopolitics, it's likely to stoke interest in Asian-focused festivals, and chances at a release in some cosmopolitan centers isn't out of the question for risk-taking distributors. It's a polished film with impeccable production values that goes easy on the head-smacking and cursing so common in Korean cinema. That said, the majority of interest in the film will likely remain regional, and the strong cast could make it a hit a home.

"Good Morning President" takes a look at the Korean presidency from three points of view: Outgoing politico Kim Jong-ho (Lee Soon Jae), wins a lottery jackpot and then waffles over what to do with the money. He buys a ticket as part of a photo-op, but when he wins, he lets loose with some post-presidential fantasizing that makes giving it to charity difficult. His successor Cha Ji-wook (Jang Dong Gun) is a young, handsome single dad ("The JFK of Korea") with a rare tissue type (is that even possible?) faced with a diplomatic conundrum involving the Japanese, American and North Korean militaries that has war implications. And the country's first woman in the Blue House, Han Kyoung-cha (Goh Doo Shim), is plagued by a corruption scandal stemming from a land purchase by her professor husband, Choi Chang-myeon (Lim Ha Ryong), after she suggests moving the capitol out of Seoul.

Had "Good Morning President" stuck to politics, the film could easily have been a revealing look at regional political relations -- even with the laughs -- and as it stands it's a good indicator of how Koreans see their position on the global political stage. Cha's abrasive meeting with the Japanese ambassador during the military kerfuffle is very nearly wish fulfillment that makes it clear the nation still seethes at the prospect of Japanese militarism. Also on the fantasy front is the purity and sanctity of the office. There's no backstabbing or sly deal making in these presidencies. Kim, Cha, and Han are so upstanding in their duties it's enough to make one want to pack up and move to the country.

More interesting, however, is the radical shift in focus, from president to spouse, when Han takes over. Where Kim and Cha held the spotlights during their stories, Han takes a back seat to her husband -- the first First Gentleman -- as if her power emasculated him so badly it was acceptable to move the narrative away from her. That would be a valid film in itself, what with Korea's stubbornly masculine social nature, but it's not this film. We're never given any sort of peek inside Cha's head, and Goh ("Mother") never gets the material or opportunity to really break away from her soft, matronly persona.

As with most of Jang's films, there's comedy woven in with the drama, some of it quite amusing. Lee gives Kim a weary veteran's attitude that makes his segment the strongest of the three. It's the tightest structurally, and doesn't suffer from extraneous elements like a dead-end romance (Cha's old flame E-yeon is a flat, underdeveloped character). Ultimately, "Good Morning President" sticks to lobbing softballs at public office, settling for an "all you need is love" sentiment when it could have said so much more.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Opening film

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Sales: CJ Entertainment
Production company: Soran Playment
Cast: Lee Soon Jae, Jang Dong Gun, Goh Doo Shim, Lim Ha Ryong, Han Che Young
Director: Jang Jin
Screenwriter: Jang Jin
Executive Producer: Katherine Kim
Producer: Lee Taekdong
Director of Photography: Choi Sang Ho
Production Designer: Kim Hyo Shin
Music: Han Jae Gweon
Editor: Kim Sang Bum, Kim Jae Bum
No rating, 126 minutes