On 14 January 1987, student activist Park Jong-chul dies in police custody after being tortured over his suspected anti-government links. His murder sets off a chain of events involving a conscientious prison guard, a young first-year student, an alcoholic court prosecutor, and a dogged journalist – all of whom strive in their own way to bring the truth of Park’s death to the public.
Jang Joon-hwan’s historical drama 1987: When the Day Comes is a taut political thriller, one which focuses on the most critical six months of South Korea’s post-war history. For Korean audiences it is a vivid recreation of well-known and confronting history. For international audiences, who may understandably not be fully aware of President Chun Doo-hwan, the “June Struggle”, or the Korean democracy movement, it is a staggeringly good and brilliantly staged film as well as one hell of an education.
The film begins with South Korea in the grips of both a military-backed dictator-style Presidency, and an aggressively over-reaching anti-communist branch of the national police. These anti-communist officers, led by the calmly menacing Commissioner Park (Kim Yoon-seok), operate with impunity. They snatch people off the streets, then intimidate and torture them for intelligence. At the film’s outset this strategy has already misfired – Park Jong-chul is already dead – and it is team’s attempt to cremate the body without an autopsy that first raises suspicion.
Screenwriter Kim Kyung-chan does a superb job with an extremely difficult and complex subject matter. The film begins with a dead body in a small room. It ends with more than a million people taking to the streets of Seoul. As the story expands, so does its cast, and it is testament to the skills of both writer and director that 1987 never gets confusing and never becomes laboured under the weight of its constantly growing set of characters.
Part of that success comes from the pace. The film hits the ground running and never slows down for more than two hours. There is a constant sense of threat and tension. Rather than cut back and forth between characters and subplots, the film works more like a relay race. The plot gets handed from one character to another until the story progresses, and then it is either handed back or passed onto someone new. It flows logically and clearly. It would be easy to overlook what a superb job has been done in simply telling the story.
Technically the film is superb, boasting slick photography and editing, a moody score and across-the-board strong performances. Ha Jung-woo is a particular highlight as Choi Hwan, a laconic court prosecutor who sets the resistance in motion by refusing to sign off on a cremation without an autopsy. He is one of the film’s rare humorous characters, but still packs a dramatic punch when required. Also very strong is Kim Tae-ri, in a strong and vulnerable performance as a young student named Yeon-hee. I was very impressed with Kim’s work in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden back in 2016, and she does a similarly strong job here.
1987 immerses you in a specific time and place and allows you to engage with history in a profound and emotionally effective manner. Its characters engage you. Its story may enrage you. The film’s final moments hit like a punch to the guts. This is great cinema.