1987: When the Day Comes (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Thirty years after the dawn of the sixth republic, Park Geun-hye was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison after her impeachment following an influence-peddling scandal. Such a highly publicised corruption scandal foreshadowing the production of a film unravelling the historic events of 1987 is not only dramatically befitting but also unbelievably uncanny. Following in the footsteps of the hugely successful A Taxi Driver (2017), Jang Joon-hwan’s ambitious epic 1987: When the Day Comes quickly became the fourth highest grossing film of 2017 in South Korea. Packed with a star-studded cast this is the retelling of how South Korea entered a new democratic age.

After President Chun Doo-hwan’s Anti Communist Investigation Bureau tries to cover up the murder of a student during interrogation, a series of events propagated by prosecutors, journalists, student protesters, religious officials and prison guards exposes the truth behind the brutal tactics used by the police branch in eradicating communist threats from the country. Though the narrative is rooted in historical fact its dramatic retelling is largely fictitious; however, the unravelling human stories feel all too real and only serve to pull the audience closer towards the truths it exhibits.

Led by the calculating Park Cheo-won (Kim Yoon-seok) the menacing omnipresence of the ACIB ignites a catastrophic fear with every consecutive heartbeat felt from the offset. Their threatening tactics come to a head with the immovable Choi (Ha Jung-woo) who, against the will of his superiors, stops at nothing in bringing these thugs into check. It is this attitude which begins to permeate across the wider spectrum of society, especially within the print media: it is the actions of Shin Sung-ho and Yoon Sung-sam (Lee Hee-joon) sparking the exposure of this brutality, leading newspapers to negate their strict journalist guidelines. These snowballing of events grip the audience by the throat across the first fifty minutes, hurling them into the deep end and barely allowing time to breathe; gut-wrenching flurries of grief faced by Park Jong-chul’s family provide are the only breaks we receive.

It is only in the second half of the film where tensions are allowed to simmer, amplifying the more human stories caught in the crossfire. Here, Jang pulls our attention to prison guard Han Byung-yong (Yoo Hae-jin) and his freshman niece Yeon-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as they navigate relaying information back to the ACIB’s prime target Kim Jung-nam (Sol Kyung-gu). At this point, the violent suppression of student protests drags the reluctant Yeon-hee deeper into the struggle, crossing paths with Lee Han-yeol (Gang Dong-won) in the process. As their friendship blossoms so too the tensions boil to the surface once again, plunging the audience into a tense race-against-time as the truth begins to snake its way through the barricades, crumbling the corrupt foundations of Chun’s administration brick by brick.

These monumental set-pieces unfold with such meticulous precision they perfectly encapsulate the sheer magnitude of the director’s ambition. Jang, the filmmaker behind sci-fi satire Save the Green Planet (2003) and revenge thriller Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013), weaves the story with a vigorous tenacity losing neither the impact of the historical significance or the audience’s attention. But whilst his directing prowess and Kim Kyung-chan’s storytelling bring these events to life it is in the enthralling and charismatic power of the impressive cast where 1987 triumphs. Stepping into shoes many of these stars would have experienced adds a whole new dimension of authenticity in their performances, fleshing out their on-screen alter-egos with all the tenderness, fear, and hope the roles demand. A frightening central performance from Kim Yeon-sook and no-nonsense delivery from Ha Jung-woo will linger in memory long after the credits roll – their adversarial yet humorous rapport ensnares early on – with Kim Tae-ri’s youthful and emotional stand-out role will further cement her as one of South Korea’s most promising actresses.

1987 is a tense film at heart, a non-stop barrage of gruelling dread and fear for the safety of all those entwined in its engrossing narrative. As the cast takes the audience by the hand into their world they are inescapably grounded there by Kim Woo-hyung’s immersive cinematography; capturing the film’s relentless protests and the resulting chaos and heart-pounding unity in defiance against military suppression feels all too real. Pitting us in the shoes of those in the film even further is Kim Tae-seong’s rousing score, excruciatingly manipulating us to feel every agonising moment and every stirring thought racing through everybody on the screen.

While most political thrillers only aim to succeed in keeping everybody on their toes, Jang’s brilliantly executed drama submerges its audiences deep within the unfolding narrative of ordinary lives caught up in a maelstrom of political violence bravely defying the barbaric lengths Chun’s authorities used to intimidate and silence. As engaging as it is entertaining, the film’s importance is heralded even further with the preceding scandal which saw the country’s first democratically elected leader impeached. It is an empowering reminder that corruption will no longer be tolerated by a people whose relationship with democracy is comparatively young. With this masterpiece in historical storytelling, Jang has finally outgrown his cult status and rocketed into the pantheon of great South Korean filmmakers.

1987: When the Day Comes is showing on July 7 at the New York Asian Film Festival.