Story: Seong Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is a barber and owns a shop in the president's neighborhood, the Blue House.
Politically not very well-versed he always joins his acquaintances' opinions and at first also isn't aware what
consequences result from president Rhee's resignation in 1960 after several student demonstrations. Rhee leaves a
power vacuum that his soon filled by a military regime lead by General Park Chung-hee (Jo Yeong-jin) who puts himself
at the top of the government in 1963. Han-mo, however, has different concerns as his wife Min-ja (Moon So-ri) brings
a son into this world of politically turbulent times. Fortunately, Han-mo's barber shop is running well and
he has no need to concern himself about how to feed his family anymore when KCIA-Chef Jang (Son Byung-ho) enters his
shop and orders him to the president. From that day on simple-minded Han-mo is the president's barber and at least
for his neighbors one of the most important people in the country...
Review: Moviemakers tend to transport history either in an exceptionally uninspiring documentary fashion or
in form of an aggressive and violence-loaden movie, most of the time in shape of a war movie, that aims at shocking the
audience. Every now and then, however, there is a director who actually comes up with something new and makes viewers
as well as critics alike applaud in excitement. "Forest Gump" is such a history lesson of a different kind, but the
tragi-comedy "The President's Barber" also proves to be such a work of art, which isn't just worthwhile for history
students, but also manages to simply entertain! Director Lim Chan-sang manages with his work to wander an incredibly
thin line between cruelty and comedy. Where else can you see people getting deprived of freedom of speech or even
tortured and at the same time are forced to laugh? It's that bitter sarcasm with which Lim presents his movie that makes
his work so outstanding and valuable.
"The President's Barber" tells a fictional story, yet is based on historical characters and events. For the viewer it's that easy to become a part of history unfolding, because we get someone we can relate to, sympathize with, but also admire in the shape of Han-mo. The barber is a man of simple intellect, he loves his country, yet knows only little about the actual politics and problems of the state. This becomes even apparent when he is "advised" by his friends who to choose during election. Han-mo actually doesn't care who he votes for, he is happy when others are satisfied by his decision. He always wants to do things right, yet fails to do so very often, which is also because of the fact that he is a simple-minded individual. But that's just what makes him so sympathetic for the viewer. Song Kang-ho ("The Host", "Memories of Murder") is simply made for this part and to be honest it's also not the first time he takes on such a role.
The friendly atmosphere is by part also created by the neighborly relations. The film's location may be Seoul, but back then this was a completely different town than today, so that sometimes we get the feeling Han-mo is living in a neighborhood resembling that of a village. You may not know everyone by name, but a feeling of familiarness will inevitably surround you when meeting the supporting characters. The cheerful, somewhat french sounding score adds to the buoyant mood, so that we feel everything unfolding on screen to be presented to us with a wink. One example is Han-mo wanting to get his wife, who is about to deliver, to a nearby doctor in a handbarrow, as he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a student protest event, whereas he himself is thought of as a doctor and asked to treat the students that have been shot by the government trying to break up the demonstration. Blood is everywhere and we are quite aware of the range of atrocity we are witnessing here, yet all of this is conveyed in an outstandingly funny way so that you have no other choice but to laugh about this whole situation.
The extraordinarily sarcastic humor is even taken to extremes when it comes to the torture of a little child. Seriously, can it get more gruesome than this? And yet, director Lim turns this into an outermost comical scene. While seeing all of this the viewer never forgets that these atrocities where in fact commited by the Park-regime. Lim is simply proving that he can convey the message without having to make his audience turn away from the screen in uneasiness and agony. There are numerous scenes that will make you laugh out loud, some of them are unfortunately lost in translation, certain allusions you will only be able to comprehend if being a little bit familiar with the country's history, but there are still enough moments that will make everyone laugh. You will also find a reference to the already mentioned "Forest Gump" in a scene where Song Kang-ho and president Park are inserted into original film footage of Richard Nixon, whereas the technical realisation certainly doesn't need to hide behind those of Hollywood productions.
Director Lim actually finds time to at least touch certain important historical events in South Korea and to give an entertaining overview about the turbulent 60s and 70s of this country, even if he does so by simply implementing a side story about a friend of Han-mo going to Vietnam etc. However, there is one thing to be criticized and that's the given portrayal of president Park which turns out to be a little bit too positive. Park may be significantly responsible for the country's economic development, improvement of the educational system and the overall improvement of living standards, but the tools he used to make this possible were nonetheless those of a dictatorship, so that the all in all positive picture of this man drawn here has to be alienating a bit.
"A President's Barber" is full of comicality, tragic and cruelties, which are in a constant rotation. Just like it is the case in real life. Furthermore, the director inserts some symbolism and at times almost fairy tale-like scenes into his movie. Lim's work is an ironical look at these turbulent times in South Korea, the story works close with the people, so that this history lesson is as entertaining as nothing you have seen before. "A President's Barber" proves to be a precious gem, that you really shouldn't miss!