Set amid the country’s military dictatorship period, the film centers on the inner circle of real-life South Korean president Park Chung-hee during the 40 days before his assassination in 1979. Consummate local leading man Lee Byung-hun stars as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency spy whose machinations ultimately led to a change of power in the country. Lee is among the short list of Korean stars to have crossed over to Hollywood in recent years, having appeared in Paramount’s G.I. Joe franchise as Storm Shadow and Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake, among other roles.
The Man Standing Next was released in South Korea in late January, earning the blockbuster total of $34.5 million. Not long after, the coronavirus pandemic reached South Korea’s shores, sending cinemas into a repeated pattern of stop-start shutdown and reopening. As of October, The Man Standing Next remains the country’s highest-grossing film of 2020. (In second place is Zombie flick Deliver Us From Evil, which released during a COVID-19 lull in August, earning $34 million.) The Man Standing Next was produced by Hive Media and Showbox.
The selection was unveiled Thursday by the Korean Film Council, which said in a statement: “The Man Standing Next is an attractive film featuring a rather dark side of the history of South Korea renowned for its phenomenal economic growth. Actor, Lee Byung-hun, who has name recognition in the U.S., gives a great performance in the movie.”
For decades, South Korea’s consistently innovative cinematic output was overlooked by the Oscars. Until 2019, no Korean film had ever been nominated in the best international feature film category, let alone any of the major categories. All of that changed last year, of course, with the historic four Oscar wins by Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.