One of the oddest aspects of this year’s awards season – which happened approximately four thousand years ago – was that Parasite swept the board in all major categories except one. At the Oscars, for instance, Parasite won best original screenplay, best director, best film in a foreign language and best picture. And yet for some reason its cast didn’t get a look in.
This is a crying shame because, in Song Kang-ho, Parasite has one of the all-time greats of Korean cinema. You don’t need to be a paid-up Koreaphile to have noticed Song in other films, because he has appeared in breakout hits like Snowpiercer, The Host, Thirst Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Good, The Bad, The Weird as well as domestic blockbusters like Shiri and Joint Security Area. But perhaps one of my favourite roles is his lead in 2004’s The President’s Barber, which is possibly the closest thing Korea has ever produced to Forrest Gump.
As you’d expect, Song plays the man tasked with cutting the president’s hair. He’s a big, placid figure brought up to respect authority in all its forms, who finds himself as a close-quarters witness to some of the darkest moments in 20th-century South Korean history. The president whose hair he cuts is Park Chung-hee, whose dictatorship ruled the country for almost 20 years.
A little historical knowledge of Park will help your understanding of the film. The shortest possible explanation is that after rising to power in the early 1960s, Park made his name by lifting South Korea out of postwar poverty and imposing a terrible reign of human rights abuses on his population. He changed the constitution to allow himself more than two terms in power. He ran elections unopposed. Enemies were kidnapped and criticism of the regime was outlawed. The homeless were collected and sent to work camps. Park’s time in power ended in 1979, when he was shot in the head by his own security chief.
In some ways, there is a parallel between Song’s barber here and the character he plays in Parasite. Both are men of simple means who find themselves seduced by what others have. In The President’s Barber, however, the disillusionment takes longer to set in. For a while he’s happy to live in the limelight; travelling to America with Park (where, in the Gumpiest moments of the film, he’s digitally inserted into old Richard Nixon footage). But the good times end, in a slightly weird tonal shift, with a bout of diarrhoea.
Park declares that North Korean spies have been in the vicinity of Seoul, and they all have infectious gastrointestinal issues. Therefore, a system of contact tracing is put into effect; anyone who displays signs of diarrhoea must have been in contact with them, and is probably a collaborator. So when the barber’s young son complains about an upset stomach within earshot of a high-ranking government official, he is tortured until he is paralysed.
These lurches in tone are what define The President’s Barber. By rights it should be a full-blown melodrama, and in places it is, but it’s also offset by a goofiness that sometimes borders on the inappropriate. There are long scenes where Song undercuts the solemnity of a funeral by straining for a poo. The son is tortured with electricity, and quickly hooked up to fairy lights so the torturer can dance around like Elvis Presley. There are dream sequences of grisly murder. In that respect, it’s a hard film to pin down.
But at the centre of it all is the slow wearing down of Song. He starts the film as an amiable idiot but, as Park’s regime grinds on, he gradually becomes gloomier and gloomier. He’s tied up with a regime that has ripped his family apart, and the knowledge of this threatens to destroy his entire sense of self. It’s only at the very end, after Park’s death, that he regains a semblance of his old persona. His son starts to recover. He’s banned from the presidential home after making a wisecrack about the baldness of Park’s successor. The “happy ending” of this weird-ass film is a kidnapping and beating.
The President’s Barber won’t be for everyone. Come for comedy and you’ll leave bummed out; come for drama and you’ll just be confused. But as a way of making an unpalatable moment in history slightly more digestible, and as further proof of Song’s genius as a performer, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The President’s Barber is available on Netflix in the US and UK