Film Review: 1987: When the Day Comes

A fine, well-acted and very exciting reenactment of Korean events that finally brought that country into the age of democracy.
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Directed by Jang Joon-hwan from a screenplay by Kim Kyung-chan, 1987: When the Day Comes depicts the events of 30 years ago in South Korea, where the death of student activist Park Jong-chul culminated in the end of a long history of dictatorship. That year saw the historic June Democratic Uprising, in which huge nationwide rallies protesting the authoritarian regime of President Chun Doo-hwan took place. Nicknamed “the Butcher of Gwangju,” Chun controlled his country through martial law and a heavy military presence that quelled student demonstrations in the most brutal and deadliest of ways. (This writer was in Korea in 1981 and remembers being startled by the imposition of curfews, which forced you to remain off the streets and sequestered for listless hours in, say, a nightclub in which you may have lingered too long.)

Park--blacklisted and then unlawfully imprisoned, tortured and eventually murdered--was but one of the many victims of Chun’s rule. Chun appointing Roh-Tae-woo as his official successor, forgoing any electoral process, was the last straw for Korean people hungry for democracy.

The filmmakers turn these historical events into a satisfying, fast-paced, gripping and smart thriller, focusing on a myriad of characters all united by their activism and disgust for the men in charge. There’s the prosecutor(Ha Jung-woo) who defiantly calls for an autopsy of Park’s corpse, revealing the truth; the journalist (Lee Hee-jun) who puts these findings in the headlines; a prison guard (Yoo Hai-jin) who witnesses much and smuggles out information; and, for some much-needed estrogen, an initially indifferent female student (Kim Tae-ri) who gets caught up in the need for political change through her romance with a comely activist (Gang Dong-won). The cast, comprised of some of Korea’s most beloved stars, veteran and newbies alike, acquits itself with admirable commitment. Technical aspects, especially the crackling editing, are uniformly excellent.

As ever more information is released and public awareness grows, the scope of the film widens. By the end, 1987 achieves something of the epic in its reveal of an entire country finally sick unto death of political perniciousness and damned willing to do something about it. Although 1987’s audience in this country will most likely be a limited one, it would certainly behoove the American populace to learn from the events of the film, given our current murky leadership.

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