Films inspired by true events seem to be the latest tendency in global cinema, as the combination of a “historic” base and fiction has been quite popular during the last decade. Jang Joon-hwan presents his effort in the category, with a film based on the “June Democratic Uprising”, additionally inducing it with a number of popular concepts. Let us take things from the beginning though, by presenting the history behind the film.
The actual events
The June Struggle, also known as the June Democracy Movement and June Democratic Uprising was a nationwide democracy movement in South Korea that generated mass protests from June 10 to June 29, 1987. The demonstrations forced the ruling government to hold elections and institute other democratic reforms which led to the establishment of the Sixth Republic, the present day government of South Korea.
Indirect presidential elections
Since the 1972 implementation of the Yusin Constitution by then president Park Chung-hee, South Korean presidents were elected indirectly by an electoral college. This system persisted even after Park was assassinated and replaced by Choi Kyu-ha, who was himself replaced by Chun after the Coup d’état of December Twelfth. Since the college was generally hand picked by the regime itself, it did not represent any sort of democratic check on presidential power.
Seeking to enhance his domestic and international standing by providing a veneer of democratic representation, Chun held elections in 1985. The result was a major moral victory for the opposition, led by Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. The opposition’s key demand was direct presidential elections, and Chun sought to foil this by initiating a campaign of delay, deliberation, and deferment. A parliamentary committee debated various proposals for months; on April 13, 1987, Chun suspended even this committee until after the Olympics. This action intensified unrest, but resulting demonstrations did not impress the regime and Chun decided to continue his program to install Roh as his successor.
Throughout this period, the labor movement, university students, and churches in particular joined in a mutually supporting alliance to put increasing pressure the regime. This mobilized portion of civil society, in addition to the political opposition, formed the core of the resistance that would become generalized during the decisive events of June.
Torture and death of Bak Jong-cheol
In the 1980s, many student activists in universities struggled against Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship and the aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre. Bak Jong-cheol, the president of the student council in the linguistics department of Seoul National University, was one of those students. Detained during an investigation into such activities, Park refused to confess the whereabouts of one of his fellow activists. During the interrogation, authorities used waterboarding techniques to torture him, eventually leading to his death on 14 January.
Information surrounding the events of Bak Jong-cheol’s death was initially suppressed. However, the Catholic Priests Association for Justice (CPAJ), revealed the truth to the public on May 18, further inflaming public sentiment. CPAJ planned a June 10th demonstration in his honor.
Death of Yi Han-yeol
As demonstrations intensified, students in Yonsei University swore to take the field and demonstrated at the university on June 9. During the protest, Yonsei student Yi Han-yeol was seriously injured when a tear gas grenade penetrated his skull. In critical condition, he quickly became a symbol of the subsequent protests over the ensuring weeks. He finally died of his wounds on July 5, after the regime had agreed to the people’s demands. Over 1.6 million citizens participated in his national funeral, held on July 9. He was buried at May 18th National Cemetery.
“1987” begins with Bak Jong-cheol’s death, as it introduces us to the members of the Anti-Communist branch of the police responsible for the tragedy, and their efforts to cover it up. In their attempts, however, they stumble upon Prosecutor Choi Hwan, who seems determined not to let them get their way. Eventually, the truth gets out, and protesters from all over the country get involved in a struggle that involves politicians, various police branches who even antagonize each other, the press, the church, the “resistance,” and the student activists. The film ends with the Death of Yi Han-yeol, and the subsequent, extensive protests.
Jang Joon-hwan directs a film that begins as a political thriller, through the “battle” between Choi Hwan, who wants justice to prevail and the public to know what is happening, and Commisioner PArk Cheo-won, the Chief of the Anti-Communist Branch (and his higher-ups), who tries to sweep the events under the rug. As the first win comes from the latter, the former tries to protect his men in any way he can, thus bringing more people to the equation. As the story progresses, the protagonists become even more, until we are introduced to warden Han Byung-yong and his niece, Yeon-hee, who eventually becomes acquainted to Yi Han-yeol, who changes her whole perspective in life.
The first part of the film, the political thriller one, is exceptional, with Jang’s direction highlighting both the actual and the fictional events with elaborateness, building up the tension trough a torrenting succession of events that result in the upper hand changing almost constantly. Through these events, Jang shows the despicable tactics of the then government quite eloquently.
In this effort, he benefits the most from Yang Jin-mo’s editing, who retains this relentless pace in quite entertaining fashion. However, and while the film had all the prerequisites of continuing and finishing as such, somewhere in the middle Jang hits the reef of commerciality quite hard, by inducing the narrative with unnecessary melodramatic moments, and even more, with a kind of teen romance that seems completely misplaced.
The effort in making the film as popular as possible is supplemented by the cast, which includes the crème de la crème of the current Korean movie industry. And if the presence of Kim Yoon-seok as as Commissioner Park Cheo-won, Ha Jung-woo as Prosecutor Choi Hwan, and Yoo Hae-jin as Warder Han Byung-yong helps the narrative of the film, as all three are great in their parts, the same does not apply to Kim Tae-ri as Yeon-hee and Gang Dong-won as Yi Han-yeol, whose purpose seems to achieve only one goal: for the film to find some appeal with teenage girls, through their romance. Add to that the presence of Sol Kyung-ku, Oh Dal-su, and Moon So-ri (her voice actually) and you have a cast that would attract almost every demographic in the country.
Through this approach, of including a plethora of characters and their connection to the events, Jang seems to try to take the narrative away from people and to focus on the story. However, after a fashion, it becomes evident that he lost his sense of measure at some point.
The depiction of the era is one of the movie’s greatest assets, with Han Ah-reum’s production design, and Chae Kyung-hwa and Hwang Hyun-kyu’s costumes providing accuracy in detail. Just watch the people wearing short sleeve-shirts and ties over their long-sleeve sweatshirts and the joy a Walkman can bring, and you will know of what I mean.
The action follows the lines of the Korean action thriller, with a number of impressive, and occasionally quite violent scenes, which include both one -on-one and many-against-one sequences, where the cinematography and editing are, once more, exceptional.
Lastly, the actual footage of the events in the end of the film is a very nice touch, as it connects the movie with history, although, in combination with the epic and somewhat morose music, seems again like an effort in sentimentalism. The events, on the other hand, justify this approach, to a point at least.
“1987: When The Day Comes” is an impressive production, which includes almost every element of Korean cinema that has made it so popular internationally. However, everything that is bad about the country’s movie industry at the moment is here also.