Comedy, Drama, Films, Reviews, South Korea

The President’s Barber

Hardly the political bite of The President’s Last Bang, but a likable vehicle for Song Kang-ho nonetheless – if not for anyone else involved…

The President’s Barber recounts some of South Korea’s most turbulent political moments, as seen through the eyes of a simple barber whose shop is within throwing distance of The Blue House, the centre of South Korean government…

The barber, Seong Han-mo (played with usual comic flair by Song Kang-ho, Secret Reunion, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, The Show Must Go On, Thirst), has no interest in politics, yet finds himself stuck in the middle of some of the most important events of the 60s and 70s. From the student demonstrations that his son is born within, to rigging election results; through the rise of the Military Regime that saw General Park Chung-hee become leader; declaring himself President for Life and remaining there for 18 years until he was assassinated by his own security services.

After Seong helps catch a ‘spy’ (who turns out to be a member of the KCIA) he is invited to be come the official barber for the president, watching history unfold, until paranoia about real spies from the north risks the life of his own child…

There’s easily some Forrest Gump-ery around co-writer / director Im Chan-sang’s film, even cleverly implanting Song and his co-stars into actual newsreel footage of Richard Nixon. Generally, however, the film feels like a series of sketches, often barely strung together save for the dominating presence of Song Kang-ho. Which is by no means unusual for a Song film – but rarely do we get such a one-horse race, with other actors having so little chance for their characters to develop.

Which is a shame, since there’s a reasonable cast behind Song, including Moon So-ri (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, Ha Ha Ha, Mister K) as his wife, Ryoo Seung-soo (The Front Line, Meet Mr. Daddy, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) as Seong’s employee, and Son Byeong-ho (The Guard Post, Oasis, Failan, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) as the KCIA chief who enrols him as the President’s barber.

(Ironically this film was screened as the first in the Korean Cultural Centre’s strand for 2013, the Year Of The Four Actors, with the opening subject being Moon So-ri. Moon’s performance as Min-ja is entertaining, but reduced to a scare few lines; hardly the focus of the movie.)

Only the role of the barber’s son Seong Nak-han, played quite ably by Lee Jae-eung (Memories Of Murder, The Host) makes any real dent, with the character also acting as the narrator.

It’s not that the comedy isn’t fun, it’s all very amiable and silly. But the end result seems too flippant in light of the seriousness of the situations and the deep corruption in government that’s shown. There’s a sideways reference to the Vietnam war that brings nothing to at all. Add that’s Seong’s characters such little interest in politics, and the film is robbed of any real political bite.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to pull back from saying too much or being too critical, running the credit ‘The characters & events featured in this story are fictitious’ right from the beginning of the film. It’s a world away from Im Sang-soo’s darkly comic The President’s Last Bang, which focused on the events of the assassination and their aftermath.

That lightness might be welcome when Seong’s young son is taken and tortured to admit he is a spy, as such treatment to a child would be rather unpleasant to watch otherwise. But it again robs the film of a real dramatic device. As the last act changes tact, and becomes about Seong’s attempts to get his son walking again, the film at least becomes more cohesive.

Intriguingly co-writer Jang Min-seok seems to have done better from The President’s Barber than director Im, working on films like Secret Reunion, Our Happy Time and Fist Of Legend; whereas Im seems to have all but disappeared.

Enjoyable, but I found it strangely hollow…

The Moon So-ri season continues fortnightly at the KCCUK as part of their Year Of The Four Actors strand. Moon will be the first actor to make an appearance later in the year for a special Q&A.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »

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