Jang Jin’s latest film, “Good Morning President,” the opening night film of this year’s Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), is above all else slickly packaged entertainment, a diverting work that solidifies this popular director’s unerring commercial instincts. If that sounds like a somewhat backhanded comment, let me assure you that it isn’t; the ability to deliver an effective crowd-pleaser can be an achievement as worthy of praise as any art film director’s attempt to create an auteurist masterwork.
Jang’s film is a panoramic portrait of the political and personal lives of three successive fictional Korean presidents: Kim Jung-ho (Lee Soon-jae), who at the outset is on his way out of office; his much younger successor Cha Ji-wook (Jang Dong-gun), dubbed “the Korean JFK”; and Korea’s first woman president, Han Kyoung-ja (Goh Doo-shim). If any political satire (which Jang’s scenario would seem ripe for) exists here at all, it’s of the gentlest kind possible; one imagines what a more irreverent director, for example Im Sang-soo (“The President’s Last Bang”), would have done with this material. As Jang himself said at the press conference for his film, his interest mostly lies in delving into the personal lives of the political figures he examines, and bringing the often remote personage of the Korean president down to a much more human level. The three presidents of Jang’s film are shown struggling to balance their responsibility to look after and protect their citizens with the demands of their private lives. Much of the humor of the film, as well as its more emotional moments, arises from the conflicts that result from these opposing personal/political forces.
Korea is a very old country with a very young democracy. Its first democratically elected president, Roh Tae-woo, took office in 1988. South Korea’s preceding presidents were essentially dictators in all but name; the last two that preceded Roh, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, seized power in military coups. Jang mentioned in the press conference that he grew up in the era of Park, who despite the reforms he instituted that brought rapid technological advances to Korea in the 1970’s, was also a very socially repressive and despotic figure who smothered any political or cultural elements that he considered a threat to his hegemony. Jang talked of the oppression he personally felt living through this period, and we can infer that “Good Morning President” is in part a celebration of the fact that with democracy, the president is now a much more humane figure, more accessible to the people he (or she, in this film) serves and far more accountable to them. This by no means should imply that South Korea is now an idyllic paradise; Jang doesn’t lose sight of the country’s political problems.
While this year’s PIFF had much more visually inventive and formally daring films, “Good Morning President” was a good choice with which to open the festival, a superior commercial entertainment that was a tasty appetizer to the more substantial meals offered afterward. I would be remiss here not to mention the great cast Jang has assembled, starting with Jang Dong-gun, making a very high-profile return to the screen after a four-year absence. Jang as Cha Ji-wook is much more than a handsome face here (although that is certainly an attraction, especially for his female fan base), and he nicely conveys the slick operator as well as the more genuine person that coexists within his character. Goh Doo-shim is also fascinating as the Korean female president. Although it is admirable that Jang doesn’t unduly underline her status as such, one wishes Jang offered some more pointed commentary on how her character navigates Korea’s still rather patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Goh provides much heart to her role, and she works well with Lim Ha-ryong, who plays the first husband, and who is more often than not an embarrassment to the president. (If Cha is the Korean JFK, then President Han’s husband is the Korean Billy Carter or Roger Clinton.) Their love/hate relationship provides very potent comedic and romantic sparks to the film. The beautiful Han Che-young also shines in her much more limited role as President Han’s spokesperson and President Cha’s old flame.