1987: When the Day Comes is one of those movies which could not have been made a couple of years ago. It would have got the director and its all-star cast included on the infamous blacklist of suspected lefties who would not get government support in future. And to have the director of this film as well as the madcap Save the Green Planet effectively barred from making future movies would have been a tragedy.
The film examines the tumultuous events which led to the end of Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, starting with the death of a student, Park Yong-chul, in a police torture chamber and finishing with the death of another student, killed by a CS gas canister in a demonstration. As with A Taxi Driver (dir Jang Hoon) released eleven months previously, the challenge facing director Jang Jun-hwan with 1987 was how to make a compelling drama out of well-known events.
The solution he adopted is to interweave the story of the snowballing democratic protest movement with a love story and a thriller. For, more than anything else, this movie is a thriller, with the bad guys represented by the security forces of the repressive dictatorship opposed by a disparate assortment of citizens with varying levels of commitment to the activist cause. For the activists, the objective is to get evidence that Park Yong-chul did not die of a heart attack, frightened to death by a policeman thumping on the table in the interrogation room (the story laughably put about by the authorities) and get the newspapers to print the truth. As with A Taxi Driver, if the story can get into the foreign press, so much the better. For the authorities, led by the Anti-Communist Investigation Bureau (ACIB), the objective is both to close down the activists’ investigations and simultaneously press on with hunting down and eliminating the leader of the democracy movement through the tried and tested methods of intimidation and brutality.
The game of cat and mouse is fast-paced, sometimes almost too fast, leading the audience along in breathless excitement. With all the testosterone and adrenaline overflowing from this strand of the movie, we need the balance of the softer, more humorous and domestic plot-line represented by the burgeoning love story between the young student Yeon-hee, played by Kim Taeri (The Handmaiden), and student activist Han-yeol, played by the handsome Kang Dong-won (The Priests).
Yeon-hee has the same sort of progression as that shown by Song Kang-ho’s character in A Taxi Driver. Initially sceptical of the protest movement, she is more interested in dating than demonstration, in her Sony Walkman than student activism, and is outraged when a cartoon club is used as cover for a screening of a secret documentary showing highly upsetting footage of the Gwangju massacre. But she comes to realise, when people close to her are impacted by out-of-control authoritarian forces, that protest is the only possible course of behaviour.
A critical element in both of the main plot lines is the growing sense of rage against the injustices perpetrated by Chun Doo-hwan’s security forces which gives the protests an ever increasing sense of momentum. These outrages are even resisted by elements of the establishment: Prosecutor Choi who refuses to authorise the immediate cremation of the body, instead requesting an autopsy; the prison chief who also wants to do things by the book, maintaining documentary records that will be crucial to the activists; the newspapers, too long simply a distribution channel for government press releases, decide to try to print the truth; the Catholic Church, in many countries seen as a bastion of conservatism, in Korea stood out against oppression. All of these acts of resistance combine eventually to force the change in leadership from Chun to his colleague Roh Tae-woo.
Given the ambitious range of themes and plot lines in this movie, it is almost inevitable that there is a bewildering cast of characters, but it never overwhelms you entirely. The towering bad guy is Director Park Jeol-won (Kim Yoon-seok – The Priests, Yellow Sea), a North Korean escapee who having risen to head of the Anti-Communist Investigation Bureau is now a ruthless persecutor of anyone suspected of having communist sympathies. He is supported by a cast of interrogators, pliant police officers and hired thugs who do his bidding with the full support of the President (at least, until things start to go wrong).
Arrayed against Director Park are the characters who are brave enough to carry out acts of resistance: Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo – Tunnel), who refuses to allow the immediate cremation of the young student’s body, defying the ACIB and his own boss by ensuring an autopsy is carried out: he wants to do things by the book as well as having an increasing sympathy to the democratisation movement and hostility to the thuggish ways of the ACIB. There’s the journalist, Yoon Sang-sam (Lee Hee-joon – Haemoo), in search of a scoop; and the central character, Han Byung-yong (Yoo Hae-jin – Veteran), a junior prison guard and low-ranking activist who pays a pivotal role in smuggling messages between political prisoners under his control and the resistance movement on the outside. Byung-yong is also pivotal as the link with the love interest in the movie, his niece Yeon-hee whom he tries to enlist as a message-carrier because a young girl is less likely to be stopped and searched by the secret police. Incidentally, it’s a mark of the strength and size of the cast that a star actor such as Sol Kyung-gu (playing activist leader Kim Jung-nam) has virtually nothing to do in the movie apart from hide from the police, although he contributes to an exciting chase scene.
The outside locations are well-chosen, such as the set pieces filmed in a Buddhist temple where the resistance leader is hiding, and the quieter, domestic scenes filmed in the low-rise neighbourhood location where the small store run by Yeon-hee’s mother is based, in the shadow of Namsan tower. Period detail such as hair styles and clunky-looking audio equipment add a sense of authenticity.
More importantly though this is a movie which asks the big questions about patriotism. The ACIB has no doubt that they are serving the nation; and, perhaps pointing out how perverted this form of patriotism has become, the police interrogators sing another verse of the national anthem to measure the length of time they dunk a prisoner’s head in the water bath. But it is the real patriots, the protestors, who sing the anthem and wave the national flags to protest about the excesses of the oppressive dictatorship, just as they did in Gwangju seven years previously. And it is these protestors who paved the way for the democracy that South Korea enjoys today.
It is strange how a film about a democratic protest movement can provide such uplifting entertainment, but as the closing titles roll, with documentary footage of the real-life demonstrations and death of the second student, overlaid by the protest song When the Day Comes, it is hard not to shed a tear at the sacrifices made, and somehow feel pride at the achievements of those protestors, as precursors of the candlelight demonstrators thirty years on.
Jang Joon-hwan (장준환) 1987: When the Day Comes (1987, released 2017)