The events of June 1987, in which millions of people poured into the streets to resist the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, hold a monumental place in South Korea’s history. Over three weeks of protests, the people proved stronger than the government, setting the stage for democratic reforms which have lasted to this day. It might seem like an obvious subject to turn into a movie, given that the Korean film industry has had such success dramatizing other major events from recent history. But it has taken until now for a director to bring these events to the screen. For one thing, the so-called June Struggle is not the simple, uplifting story of triumph over oppression that it may appear to be from the outside. Koreans who lived through this era recall it with far more complicated emotions, given that the military dictatorship ultimately hung onto power for another five years, and the transition to democracy was agonizingly slow and painful.
Over the years, several other film projects about 1987 have failed to come together, partly because of the challenge of capturing the complex dynamics of that moment. But director Jang Joon-hwan has made a film that not only rings true for people who experienced it first hand, but has also captivated younger viewers, resulting in a critical hit that sold over 7 million tickets.
1987: When the Day Comes focuses not on the protests themselves, but on the events that led up to them. In contrast to a movie like A Taxi Driver (2017), which centers in on a touching personal story, 1987 follows a very large cast of characters, moving back and forth between their various narratives. The result is that we not only get a broader cross section of society on screen, but that the film captures how a slow-burning sense of rage spreading throughout the populace gradually builds into a powerful social momentum.
The film is bookended by the deaths of two students – real-life incidents that would be well-known to the Korean audience. The first is Park Jong-cheol, a linguistics student from Korea’s leading university who died while being waterboarded by police at the Anti-Communist Investigations Bureau. Realizing how potentially explosive news of this incident could be, the director of the ACIB (Kim Yun-seok, in a chilling performance) orders that his body be quickly cremated. However this requires the approval of the temperamental Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo), who whether out of idealism or a petty sense of rebellion, refuses the order and demands an autopsy. Thus begins a slow chain reaction in which doctors, journalists, activists, and prison guards all contribute small acts of resistance, which snowball into an escalating crisis for the government.
If there’s one character who symbolizes the populace as a whole it’s Yeon-hee, a university student who initially shows little interest in politics, until a fellow student starts to challenge her complacency. One of the few characters not based on a real-life person, her trajectory may seem a bit too pat, but her role is given life by the spirited performance of Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden). Sure enough, 1987 makes ample use of star power, which helps shape the film’s careful blend of social commentary and entertainment.
Sometimes timing is everything for a film. In late 2016, a year before this film’s release, crowds of a similar magnitude filled the streets of Seoul and other cities demanding the impeachment of the corrupt president Park Geun-hye. It was a watershed moment for South Korea’s young and resilient democracy, making it all the more fitting that a film like 1987 should shine a light on the many sacrifices that allowed that democracy to be born.
Jang Joon-hwan studied film directing at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, where he made the acclaimed short film 2001 Imagine. A classmate of Bong Joon-ho, the two collaborated on the screenplay for Phantom: The Submarine (1999) before Jang made his feature debut in 2003. Save the Green Planet! ranks as one of the most highly praised debut films in contemporary Korean cinema, winning awards at the Moscow and PiFan film festivals while going on to become a cult hit. However Jang subsequently struggled to get his next project Fartman off the ground, and it would be a full decade before his next feature film, the thriller Hwayi: A Monster Boy. 1987: When the Day Comes ranks as his most commercially successful film to date.
2003 – Save the Green Planet!
2013 – Hwayi: A Monster Boy
2017 – 1987: When the Day Comes