ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES – Fans of South Korean cinema know the country can produce world class horror, thriller and even rom-com films. You can add political biopic to that list, with the December release of “1987: When the Day Comes.”
This moving film centers on the government’s botched cover up of the torture and killing of college student Park Jong-chul, and how the scandal sparked protests that ultimately felled a dictator.
Director Jang Joon-hwan weaves together multiple perspectives of the nation and the events, taking viewers through different parts of the country and presenting people of diverse backgrounds and ages. The perspectives build on each other, and with each stage the story of Jong-chul’s death grows clearer.
The film opens with a prosecutor demanding an autopsy on Jong-chul, while police push to cremate the body; an ironic beginning, pitting justice against law enforcement. The autopsy later reveals signs of torture and it isn’t long before journalists jump on the case and spring for leaks. More details spill when a prison warden and his politically awakened niece work to smuggle and release a prison letter to activists.
Chief Park Cheo-won is introduced as a complex antagonist in the film. Actor Kim Yoon-seok plays him as a pensive, yet ruthless man with a dark past. It is later revealed that Chief Park had defected from North Korea after witnessing the murder of his family. He has unwavering patriotism, but it is rooted in anti-communism, blinding him to the true nature of the democratic protests. This late in the Cold War, Park is like a relic holding on to an old world and concept that is collapsing before him.
Chief Park emphasizes this multi-perspective attitude of the country at the time, showing that the conflict was not strictly black and white, and each player had their own tragic experiences that contributed to their fears, passions, and actions.
Chief Park is not the only character worth recognizing. As many of the actors have limited screen time, they do not falter in their performances and play their characters to the fullest.
Ha Jung-woo plays Prosecutor Choi, who orders the autopsy on Jong-Chul, and is notable for his charming cynicism. “A Taxi Driver” actor, Yoo Hae-jin magnificently plays the prison warden, a catalyst for the revolution.
Then there’s Kim Tae-ri, a rising star in South Korean cinema, who takes on the pressure of initiating the final act as the prison warden’s niece, an excitable college girl who usually stays out of trouble until she is swept up by history. While Kim’s character is one of the few not inspired by a real person, she represents the South Korean students’ push for democratization. Kim Tae-ri’s character takes the viewer through the movie’s final moments of the fight for democracy through her cautious and increasingly optimistic eyes.
The movie targets Korean audiences, who are likely to know the history and sympathize with the story. Seeing it with a primarily Korean audience, there was a sense that some of the older viewers were part of these nationwide protests. In the theater, there were cheers for the character, Lee Han-yeol, a student activist whose eventual death made him a martyr for the democratic movement. Lee Han-yeol was depicted as a passionate young man, friendly and resolute until his final moments. The film dramatized his death in a touching scene that was hard for many to watch.
This movie can functions as a great crash course for younger Koreans who perhaps had only heard of the so-called June Democratic Uprising, and for non-Koreans to whom much of this will be news.
Jang Joon-hwan digs for thrills and emotion at every possible moment, but overall, he sticks to the record, laying out what seems like an improbable path to democracy. A prosecutor orders an autopsy, a doctor says a few words to a reporter, journalists risk their lives to curb government censorship, a politically-conscious prison guard smuggled letters out of a prison and later his niece joins the movement. Unbelievable, but true, and a startling example of how people from all walks of life can come together for social change.
The film ends with a song called “When the Day Comes,” which gives the film its title. There’s a video of a crowd singing it, with protesters marching in the streets and waving flags. It is serene in its depiction of unity; a whole people engaged in peaceful demonstrations for a better future. That history can’t be overlooked.
It’s staggering to think that there are people still around who were part of a successful democratic revolution. Many are still healthy and lead normal lives, go to work, have families, and they once risked all of that. They marched through streets, stared down police, faced savage beatings, watching friends die before their eyes. They sacrificed their complacency for the chance of a better future, and they triumphed.
“1987: When the Day Comes” is now playing in all CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles and Buena Park 8 and is available in both Korean and English.