Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule #85 The President’s Barber  ★★★½
The protagonist Seong Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) would love nothing more than to keep his head down and operate his barber shop in peace. But after a madcap kerfuffle with a man he mistakes as a North Korean spy, Han-mo is summoned to the Blue House and becomes the president’s personal barber. The president, however, is Park Chung-hee (Jo Yeong-jin), a former general who seized power in a coup d’état and ruled over South Korea for almost twenty years as a brutal military dictator. As Chung-hee’s barber, the hapless Han-mo gets a front-row seat to Chung-hee’s tyrannical reign, enjoying an odd personal immunity usually reserved for a dictator’s private doctor. Unfortunately, as Han-mo finds out, that immunity extends to him and only him as the film takes a sharp dramatic turn from breezy comedy after the first hour. After a group of North Korean assassins are foiled mid-mission by a sudden wave of diarrhea, Chung-hee’s government begins a round-up and purge of anyone in the capital suffering the same affliction, making the logical authoritarian deduction that having the runs proves someone had illicit contact with the spies. Among those disappeared for “questioning” is Han-mo’s son who—after a bizarre sequence involving a reluctant torturer, an electric chair, and Christmas lights—is returned to their house a cripple.
This speaks to the essential difference between The President’s Barber and Forrest Gump: the latter film assumes that someone can blithely bumble their way through history without being scarred by it while the former realizes that assumption is ridiculous. Unrestrained power corrupts, and anyone said power rubs up against will get hurt in one way or another, even if they’re just there to cut the boss’s hair.