1987 was a year when both my parents were either in college or just about to enter college in bustling South Korea. Anyone who’s seen my favorite kdrama Reply 1988 likely knows that this time period was marked by global recognition (with the coming of the 1988 Seoul Olympics), a growing affinity for teen and pop culture, and a massive shift in Korean politics and government. 1987: When The Day Comes chronicles the year in South Korea when the June Democratic Uprising occurred, a nationwide protest in which over a million people (mostly led by university students) participated in overthrowing the military dictatorship, leading to the establishment of the country’s current democracy.
- spoilers ahead -
The film starts strong with the attempted “heart attack” coverup of the death of Park Jong-chul, a college student and protestor, whose torturous death was the result of unofficial interrogations to out the opposition leader, by the sitting Commissioner of Anti-Communism, a North Korean defect played by Kim Yoon-seok. Kim’s performance as the Commissioner is terrifying, not just because of his character, but also because of the enormous thug power he wields over the citizens. Prosecutor Choi Hwan, played wonderfully by Ha Jung-woo, goes head to head with him by, almost pettily, refusing to sign off on the cremation of the student’s body, believing the death to be a result of torture. Their antagonizing and thrilling chemistry is intense, and amplified by the journalists and press that are in constant swarm, desperately trying to get any word out to the people.
But then the story suddenly cuts to that of a local prison warden, whose union background and political dispositions put him and his family in danger when he tries to sneak messages to opposition leader Kim Jung-nam (believed to be a commie by the commissioner). The warden (played by Yoo Hae-Jin) tries to urge his niece into cooperating and to caring more about what’s going on, but she (played by my aunt’s doppelgänger, Kim Tae-ri) has her own life to care about. Her character likely reflects the rest of the population’s dispositions about the protests. But of course, her life becomes complicated when not only her uncle gets caught by the commissioner’s gangs, but also her love interest (fiction and gag-worthy) turns out to be none other than Lee Han-Yeol, a real-life student whose teargas-cannistered death literally led to the main June demonstrations.
The film goes back and forth between these many stories, throwing in wild goose chases and random gang fights and a Christ-like allegory of Kim Jung-nam, that ultimately all come together at the end to show the massive and real demonstration that took place in tribute of Lee Han-Yeol’s death.
The script is ambitious and tries to tell multiple stories at once; it’s reflective of perhaps how these things really went down at the time, but doesn’t particularly make for an easy-to-follow film. The narrative is fleeting, not spending enough time or developing enough empathy to really engage with what are actually really important but one too many characters. 1987 has all the right elements of a moving journalistic and political thriller reminiscent of Spotlight (2015), but feels more like a half-climaxed epic coming out of the theater. There were two (and a half) different stories in this single film - that of the commissioner’s coverup vs. the prosecutor and that of the niece and her life being impacted by the protests. These two stories, unfortunately, felt more roughly stitched together rather than unified in creating one cohesive film.
That’s not to say this wasn’t an impactful movie, because it was, especially when considering that many of the veteran actors in this star-studded cast were part of the protests in their youth. Ultimately, 1987 creates a moving recollection of the near distant past whose remnants of political dissent still affect South Korean society to this day. While much of Korea’s historical televisual and cinematic media rely on stories from more than 600 years ago, 1987: When the Day Comes is part of a new wave of media focusing on events of the last 100 years. Right now, Korean TV and music has remained a place of light-hearted retromania for the 80s and 90s, but cinema is experiencing a prominence of exposé-style films that speak to the deeply wrought political events of the past that have shaped South Korean society today. From A Taxi Driver (2017) to I Can Speak (2017) to now 1987, these films reflect a shifting viewpoint of Korean society into the injustices of the recent past - likely culminated from the ex-president Park Geun-Hye’s recent impeachment.