By: Henry J. Fromage (Five Beers) –
A little known fact of the history of the Korean peninsula post-World War II is that both North and South Korea suffered under dictatorship for much of it. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that South Korea’s Democratization efforts fully bloomed. It’s crazy to think about, but my wife was born under a regime with no direct Presidential elections, and grew up as her her country did.
1987: When the Day Comes is the story of the last year of this movement, bookended by the murders of two student protesters, which catalyzed an entire nation into action.
Think millions take to the streets-catalyzed.
Jang Joon-hwan’s film is delivered as an almost procedural history, starting with the cover-up of the torture of a student, progressing to district attorney (superstar Ha Jung-woo) finally having enough with corruption and facing off against the North Korean-born head of secret police (his former The Chaser and The Yellow Sea foil Kim Yoon-seok), then almost jarringly shifting to the plight of the boy’s family, from there bouncing to other young people and older resisters inspired to push back against an authoritarian regime, before climaxing in the 1987 protest in which another young person loses their life. The day had come, and the news footage of literal millions taking to the streets for the funeral in solidarity brings a tear to the eye.
With a large cast of familiar faces, it’s no wonder the film is solidly acted throughout, even if, excepting perhaps Kim’s scenery-chewing villain role, no role pushes itself to the fore. This isn’t a film about one or even several people as much as it is about the whole movement and the effect it had across different swathes of Korean society, almost more akin to 1960s historical epics than the accessibility via character-type historical dramas that predominate today. The parallels to Song Kang-ho’s A Taxi Driver are obvious, which covered the 1983 Gwanju student riots in a more modern manner, but for my book this throwback approach was refreshing in its own way.
The film is also very professionally directed with some cinematographic flair from Jang and DP Kim Woo-hyung. Overall, it’s just a well realized and powerfully building historical epic of a history that was within our lifetimes- history my wife herself lived as a child. It’s hard to fathom when you go to Korea now.
Admittedly, the script does jump around quite a bit, and it’s strange that you don’t see characters like Ha Jung-woo again after their presence indicates a more traditional arc for them. Jang was going for a generational sweep sort of thing, but probably could have handled the transitions so that they didn’t feel quite so abrupt.
1987: When the Day Comes is a wide-spanning, star-studded story of the South Korean democratic movement that reveals the quick-turning wheels of history.
1987: When the Day Comes (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever a photograph or film clip makes you need to
Take a Drink: whenever you see or hear about sneakers or makeup
Take a Drink: for paperwork
Take a Drink: for entertainment magazines
Do a Shot: for each student protest