The kingmaker is one who helps build governments by planning and designing campaigns for politicians and parties, yet hardly ever appears in public as a leader or political candidate. Directed by Byun Sung-Hyun, the political drama film “Kingmaker” tells the story of one such political figure in South Korea during the 1960s. The film puts its entire focus on storytelling, and with visually appealing scenes recreating the past, it makes for an interesting watch.
‘Kingmaker’ Plot Summary
Seo Chang-dae works as a pharmacist in a village but does not intend to keep the job for long. It seems local villagers often come to him seeking help with personal matters, and Seo often gives them unusual advice; he intends to enter politics and make use of his clever strategizing abilities. In 1961, he sees local opposition Democratic party leader Kim Woon-beom struggling to garner support before the elections and writes him a letter proposing changes to his campaign. But after getting no reply, Seo meets Kim in person, telling him about his interest in working for the New Democratic Party.
Although Kim is not interested in trying to think of votes as the end rather than as a means, Seo convinces him to believe in his plan, because Kim ultimately needs votes to achieve his dream of making the world a better place, and to take him on board. Backed by the campaign strategies of Seo, Kim then wins consecutive National Assembly elections, gradually making a name for himself as a potential presidential candidate. Moving forward to the 1967 National Assembly elections, Kim prepares for a tough fight in the Mokpo constituency against Republican President-backed candidate Kim Byung.
However, Seo’s wife is not pleased with the fact that he has not yet been offered any substantial political role by Kim and his party, but the kingmaker continues to play his part without any remorse. Realizing the growing popularity of Kim in the electoral region, the Republicans tried their best to turn votes in their favor, starting with the official visit for promotion by the President to the area. To counter this, the Democratic Party appoints Seo again, and it is revealed that Seo excels in running negative campaigns against his opponents—he had run a false scandal against one of the candidates in the previous election, which claimed that the candidate was having an extra-marital affair.
For the elections at Mokpo, the team’s strategy is first to create a negative image of the Republicans in the voters’ minds by being snobbish and disrespectful to them while wearing Republican uniforms. As the ruling party had also handed out clothes and shoes for free as a bribe to gain votes, Seo and his team managed to overturn that as well. They go to the houses wearing Republican uniforms, asking back the free clothes, and then gift them back to the voters with Democratic branding over them. With all these and also the charismatic leadership of Kim Woon-beom, the New Democratic Party wins the election. Despite bribes and threats from the Republican Party after the results, Seo remains unaffected by any of it and continues to work with Kim towards the latter’s presidential campaign.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Does Seo’s Loyalty Remain With Kim After All?
The next election in 1970 seemed much trickier, with four possible candidates running for the role of the New Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. At the center is Kang In-San, the most senior and obvious candidate to run for the presidency, but his two loyal aides, Kim Young-Ho and Lee Han-Sang, meet with Kim Woon-beom, privately asking for a change in the usual candidature. As each of them is advised by their teams, soon all three of them file for candidature. Kang is furious when he finds out about this, but he has no choice either, and so he places his support with Young-Ho.
In the camp of Kim Woon-beom, things look good initially as they are able to reach out to voters living in rural and far-off locations, but things soon start to turn sour. Seo, who is still the head of the campaign, now has blossoming aspirations to make his own place in politics. But Kim believes he is still not ready for such a role, and promises another advisor, Secretary Park, a seat in his legislature if they manage to win the election. This angers Seo even more, and now he seems to secretly switch sides and contact one of the other candidates, Lee Han-Sang.
Lee is quite obviously skeptical about working with Seo at first, but the kingmaker is able to convince him to follow his guidance. Their plan is to make all of Lee’s supporters cast blank votes, which would, in turn, mean that neither of the other two candidates would win the required majority, and the election would have a hung result. This would, in turn, force a second round of votes, and amidst the pressure of losing control, Kang In-San would turn his support towards Lee, and he would get the majority.
Everything goes according to plan until Lee realizes that he has been cleverly played after the second round of votes has been cast. When the first round of votes is canceled, the heavyweights of the Democratic Party turn their favor towards Kim instead of Lee, and Kim wins the election with the required majority of votes, becoming the party’s presidential candidate. Tremendously happy with Seo’s work, Kim offers him an official place in his team, making him a Chief in the Presidential Election Team.
More difficulties await Kim, though, as one of his decisions with regards to reserve army forces becomes unpopular with most people in the government. Kim promises to get rid of reserved forces, but the announcement does not go well at a time when South Korea is still fearing an invasion from the North. Kim’s popularity starts dropping heavily when Seo is asked for a solution. The conniving fox that Seo has always been, he suggests staging an attack on Kim, a plan that had earlier worked with another leader to turn the masses’ favor in his support. The entire team at the Democratic meeting is shocked to hear of such a suggestion, and Kim soon removes Seo from his team of close advisors who would be going on a campaign tour to the USA with him. When Kim is away on this tour, a bomb explodes in his house in Korea one night, but everyone manages to escape unharmed. As the Democrats put the blame on the Republican party and the President, police barge into their office and arrest many senior leaders, including Seo, claiming that the bomb blast was most possibly an inside-job to smear the Republicans. All the doubt is on Seo, and after he is released from custody, he is expelled from his post at the party over a heated and emotional argument with Kim. Disbanded from the party, Seo is quickly picked up by the Republican party to head their campaign, and Seo now works against the figure he had always looked up to.
‘Kingmaker’ Ending Explained: Where Does Seo’s Loyalty Ultimately Lie?
By the end of it all, Seo stands at a point where he can either choose his profession or his loyalty towards Kim, and he is bound to give preference to his work. Along with the team of Republicans, Seo runs a smear campaign against Kim, claiming that the candidate will be partial towards the people from his own region and will turn a blind eye towards the rival regions. This campaign works to success, and the Republican President is re-elected, defeating Kim in the vote count. Seo is not elated by this result, however, and he turns down a role in the government as well. He also reveals that it was the Republicans, not him, who planted the bomb in Kim’s house. In an epilogue, the film shows Seo and Kim meeting again in a café seventeen years later, in 1988. The two talk about the past, and Kim wishes he could have changed the past. Seo is happy to hear all this and smiles with pleasure. The next shot shows Seo seated all alone in the café, looking down, and the end credits roll.
It is perhaps that Seo and Kim never met after all those years, but Seo wished that they could have met and caught up, putting aside their differences from the past. Seo’s genuine affection and reverence towards Kim had come out in various instances throughout the film, but he had to look after his own personal needs as well. In a sense, Seo is a successful kingmaker, but he is also not one at the same time. He does manage to win all the elections that he campaigned for, but is unable to remain the selfless shadow that a kingmaker is expected to be.
The Kingmaker’s charm is in its fluid storytelling itself. Moving across different times, it manages to keep the pace and themes intact. The visuals all aid this storytelling, which is very narrative-driven, emulating the feeling of presenting history. It also provides a fair share of drama, especially in powerful scenes where Seo and Kim discuss politics and philosophies. The film begins with the claim that it is based on real-life characters and events, although the plot is fictional. Keeping with this claim, the film often presents scenes and information in the form of newspapers and news footage, making it look like actualities from the past. As a film which focuses only on telling a story, “Kingmaker” is a commendable attempt and a good film to watch.
“Kingmaker” is a 2022 Period Drama film directed by Sung-hyun Byun.