Jong-goo (played by Choi Min-sik) is the mayor of Seoul, who is in the midst of running for his third term in office. Why exactly Jong-goo is so determined to hold on to power is…unclear. At this point Jong-goo seems to be working by inertia alone. The notion that he could ever not possibly be the most powerful man in the room is abhorrent to Jong-goo. To the man’s credit, he does tend to only utilize his awesome political powers in the case of an emergency. There’s a lot of those in an election year, as young campaign staffperson Kyeong (played by Sim Eun-kyeong) learns to her slow dismay.
And it really is slow dismay. Most of “The Mayor” just consists of us watching Choi Min-sik chew scenery while delivering generic meaningless platitudes. Jong-goo really is a great analogy for the ideal modern politician. He’s the guy who seems like he cares and on one level he probably does. But in the end, Jong-goo is in this job for the ego trip. Jong-goo lacks the ability to process mistakes.
But does that actually matter? It doesn’t help that we’re given very little evidence to suggest that Jong-goo’s main rival for the mayor’s office, Jin-joo (played by Ra Mi-ran), would be any better at the job. About the only factor Jin-joo has going for her is “probably not as corrupt as Jong-goo”, which isn’t exactly an endorsement considering her campaign is much more poorly run. It’s only because of the aforementioned emergencies that Jin-joo is ever a particularly credible threat.
So if we’re not rooting for Jin-joo, and we’re not rooting against Jong-goo, what’s the central conflict in “The Mayor” supposed to be exactly? Well, there isn’t one really. We just sort of watch Jong-goo smugly ramble around from scene to scene while the other characters react to him. “The Mayor” is the kind of movie that takes joy in feeding on our cynicism, coldly reassuring us that yes, all politicians are terrible, and hope is a lie.
While I’ll admit that there are times when that negative sentiment is reassuring, right now, I’m honestly not feeling it. “The Mayor” was produced to run in an election year. Pre-impeachment that election would have taken place a lot later, and while I’ll admit the idea of Park Geun-hye still being president would have put me in a shuddering mood, right now at least, there’s a pretty clear feeling that yes, corruption can be punished and competent not-evil people can have a chance at government.
This is a highly transitory reason to dislike a movie. And I only bring it up because “The Mayor” is so otherwise generic there’s honestly not much about it that can be attacked or defended. It’s a movie about politics that is deliberately vague on policy so you can imagine the protagonist as representing whoever. There’s a satisfying smugness there, and even a bit of cleverness. Even people without political opinions get to feel superior. But for me at least, that kind of feeling in political dramas has gotten rather pass.
Review by William Schwartz
“The Mayor” is directed by Park In-je and features Choi Min-sik, Kwak Do-won, Sim Eun-kyeong and Moon So-ri.
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