Despite the abundance of President Park Chung-hee related films in modern Korean cinema—from The President’s Last Bang (dir. Im Sang-soo, 2005) and A Taxi Driver (dir. Jang Hoon, 2010) to Woo Min-ho’s own The Man Standing Next (2020)—no film that I’ve seen has quite definitively evaluated the Park presidency-dictatorship quite like Woo’s 2018 drug themed crime drama, The Drug King.
“I think it was a gloomy but glorious age at the same time,” Woo said during the film’s press at the time of release. So, he naturally wanted to make a gloomy but glorious film: the perfect fit for a standard crime drama about the making of a drug empire. The sub-genre’s emotional journey moves from desperation and grime to euphoria and/or opulent ecstasy to anxiety before finally reaching the horrific but inevitable violent conclusion in which the drug lord is brought to justice in one way or another. Scarface (1983), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Narcos (2015-2017), or even the non-drug lord but still equivalent The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) all have but one predetermined ending. The world was theirs.
And that’s exactly what The Drug King delivers almost to a fault. The undeniable Song Kang-ho plays Lee Doo-sam, a real life petty smuggler baptized into Korea’s most notorious narcotics dealer in the 1970s. Lee was no regular kingpin, though. By day, he was a champion of the Saemaul Undong or New Village Movement, a political initiative by Park’s regime to modernize rural South Korea that was by most marks essential to the “Miracle of the Han River,” a term used to refer to the speed with which South Korea became one of the world’s first “third world” countries to improve to the status of “developed” and move from being a borrower to a lender.
But, of course, that’s not the end—or even the starting point—of Park’s complicated and debatable legacy. He’s also remembered as a military strongman who took power in a coup d’etat and ruled from a place of authoritarian fear-mongering rather than democratic reasoning. The Yushin Constitution eliminated many of the remaining faint beats of democratic hope: installing an indirect election, removing term limits, and giving himself a somewhat sanitized version of what political theologian and Nazi party member Carl Schmitt called the “state of exception,” or the power of the head of state to transcend legal norms in emergency times to maintain “order” at all costs. Kim Dae-jung, a political opponent of Park, even survived an assassination attempt in 1971 and a kidnapping by the KCIA two years later. (Kim eventually served as president from 1998 to 2003.) Park was in many ways a contradiction in the flow of modern politics: a president-dictator, a dictator-president. Yoon Suk Yeol, the current South Korean president, even paid his “respects” on the anniversary of Park’s assassination.
And that’s precisely what makes director Woo’s obedient replication of fundamental genre constrictions so compelling, even if it implies some historical revisioning fall-from-grace for Park. Song Kang-ho’s Lee is both a patriot and a druggie, a capitalist and a con artist, a boon and a bane. Korea was “glorious,” to use Woo’s own words, and it was also “gloomy.” The lack of deviation from the crime-drama tropes, the most frequent criticism lauded at the film, is essential to the film’s political gist. To subvert these tropes would also subvert the film’s political agenda.
Consider where Lee begins: in a position so humiliated that he’s forced to drink another man’s piss. Could anyone so low on the justice totem pole possibly be at fault for pursuing a life of crime as a means to improve their own situation? No, absolutely not. If selling drugs was my only means to move up in a world of piss-drinking, I’d be selling crack tomorrow. This is where the film’s juxtaposition (and direct alignment) of Lee with President Park carries heavy evaluative consequences: should a president not do the same for a country boiling in poverty and in desperate need of modernization?
(Of course, this isn’t an uncommon opinion in Korea or among Korean Americans. In fact, according to 2015 polling, most South Koreans approve of Park himself even if they disliked his authoritarian system.)
Modernity is a double-edged sword: it comes with fancy buildings and economic reform, but it also comes with drug lords and trafficking, with guns and wealth disparity. Nonetheless, Woo seems to think it’s a battle worth the costs of attrition. Consider what isn’t shown in The Drug King: Lee’s failures as a father, the violent costs of becoming one of the world’s great drug lords, or the decaying effects of the drugs on his fellow patriots—something Song’s Lee even voices concerns about to one Busan drug dealer early on. We see a self-deprecated Lee, but he’s never fully beyond the point of repair.
The choice of Song loads the film with a certain political agenda too. As one of the world’s great talents, he plays every role with tremendous grace and gentleness. Because of his efficacious manners and likability, he’s virtually impossible to find disagreeable. Even in his more untrustworthy roles, like Lee, the audience trusts him even if they know other characters can’t or won’t. He’s one of the great “everyman,” or perhaps minjung, actors, thereby making him the perfect underdog: so close to the ground yet capable of touching the ceiling. He’s a cinematic weapon so beloved it’s impossible to turn on him, even if he commits some truly heinous crimes and is a completely absent and adulterating husband. (It’s okay though: we skipped over the more unforgivable absent father stuff—although, he’s still charismatic in Broker, where he plays, by the line of the law, a human trafficker.)
All told, the political reasoning Woo commands in is damn compelling, even if it’s selective in its political memory: the price Korean democracy and the minjung paid for Park’s economic success was ultimately a price worth paying.