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Itís a tricky thing for a filmmaker to take on a controversial event in recent history; an incident remembered and even lived by the subjects depicted.  It is a daring choice for Director Jang Joon-hwan to have made 1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES, a dramatisation around the events of South Koreaís ďJune Struggle,Ē the nationwide cry for democracy against the injustices of the countryís ruthless military government. 

Spirited away; a doctor and nurse are nervous passengers in the back of a van, where they are not allowed to peer out of the covered windows.  Their arrival at a nondescript building reveals a shocking sight: A half-naked young man covered in bruises, prone, soaking wet, and unconscious on a concrete floor.  Itís quickly apparent thereís no saving him, but the doctor is commanded by the officers surrounding him to try to resuscitate the youth.  Thereís no coming back, the boy is dead.  His death will set off a nationwide spark on a powder keg that had been ready to blow up for a long time.

In the decades following the Korean War, South Koreaís government has been led by a military strongmen; generals who have felt no need to pass any of their absolute authority into the hands of the nationís citizens with something as tedious as a vote.  They rule with iron fists; quickly tamping down any dissension or public defiance, using their battalions of police and military forces.  In a holdover from the War, chief officers label dissidents ďcommiesĒ because the epithet still works.  By the 1980ís the country has begun to be fed up with the cruel brutalities so commonly committed by President Chun Doo-hwanís government.  A student uprising in the city of Gwangju saw Chunís military swoop in and start a massacre that slaughtered over 600 citizens.  The horror of that moment still burns in the young people and seven years later, students still protest, and Chunís forces still do all they can to oppress their voices.

It is the heavy-handed tactics of those officers that led to the slaughter of a 21-year old linguistics student.  Park Jong-chul was apprehended and fatally waterboarded by investigators, and a phalanx of Chunís lackeys swoop in to cover up the manslaughter.  Their intent to quickly burn the body, so as to hide evidence of the torture, requires a legal sign off, and to the officersí surprise, Prosecutor Choi Hwan isnít gamely going along with the order from his superiors.  Everything about this hurried directive smells, including the fact that in this society, so reverential to the bonds of family, the body of the young man is meant to be cremated without either an autopsy or his family being allowed to identify or view him one last time in farewell.  Choi isnít budging without looking into it further.  The prosecutor, known for having a strong will and hard head, is even threatened by the feared Director Park Cheo-won, head of President Chunís Anti-Communist Investigations, which confirms to Choi what heís doing is right.  It isnít long before word of the studentís death hits the streets of Seoul, which is further enflamed by the copsí ridiculous claim that the healthy 21-year-old expired because of to a heart attack.

Park Jong-chulís arrest was only one of so many in this time of turmoil, and the jails are full of dissidents whose only crime was seeking democracy in the face of a fascist government.  The fight goes on even behind bars as a warden, disgusted by the legion injustices, acts as a liaison between imprisoned freedom fighters and anti-government organisers on the outside in hiding from police.  The wardenís heroism and drive to do the right thing pulls his family further into danger, while at the same time his young niece crosses paths with an idealistic activist.

1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES is a stunning piece of cinema.  Director Jang Joon-hwan has woven a tragic tapestry of human stories that combine and draw closer together, meeting in ways that will change those lives forever.  There is the overarching story of the corruption that permeated Korean politics, and made subjects out of the Korean citizens, who had to live in fear of their own police and authorities.  We witness President Chunís absolute and unassailable rule over the people his government was supposed to serve, and its ability to control the mainstream press into omitting any tale of wrongdoing.  We are shown the ordinary folks who cannot stand the tyranny any more, compelled to risk everything in strategies and subterfuge meant to organise a growing drumbeat for freedom.  Somehow, thereís even a tenderly crafted thread of first love that blooms amidst terror and loss.

1987: WHEN THE DAY COMESí powerful and heartfelt performances by its ensemble of some of South Koreaís finest actors provide a great deal of the movieís ammunition.  Jang must balance a wealth of riches in a superior cast led by Kim Yoon-seok, as the overzealous Director Park.  The officer must constantly walk a tightrope between appearing as a feared and deified figure of awe to his men (His bouffant, perfectly shellacked helmet of hair helps), and his apprehension each time a lackey reports how displeased President Chun Doo-hwan is at his actions.  Ha Jung-woo strikes the right tone of audacious insolence as the prosecutor who simply refuses to be a stooge for the debased men in power.  Yoo Hae-jin provides much of the storyís heart as the prison warden who canít turn away from the ugly corruption he sees around him, but can neither avoid what his conviction is doing to his already traumatised family.  Gang Dong-won is sweet and awkward (if slightly long in the tooth) in a small part as an earnest, resolute university student moved by the death of Park Jong-chul.

1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES is downright transcendent.  It is a triumph of storytelling and magnificent acting.  Jang skillfully structures the filmís emotional line to simultaneously wrench the heart without sliding into mawkish sentimentality.  The charactersí predicaments and feelings are universally engrossing: If audiences are unaware -- as I was -- about this moment in history, the viewer cannot help but feel instantly involved. 

1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES is bound to disturb and perhaps raise uncomfortable feelings for some who might prefer to close the book on this tragedy, but sometimes that is exactly what a movie -- like any good work of art -- should do.  It brings to light the destruction of a corrupt authority and the shameless abuse that those drunk with power can and will impose on a weaker people -- another universal theme that seems timeless and timely despite its title.  1987 is also a tribute to those figures, real and symbolic, who put themselves very literally in the firing lines in order to free South Korea from tyranny.  Itís also a testament to the strength of the South Korean people and their resolve to stand up to decades of corruption, even as it endures awful costs.

Heartbreaking and inspiring, dark and illuminating, with 1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES Director Jang Joon-hwan has crafted a film that shows us how the power and beauty of cinema can capture a moment in time, and its ability to frame and glorify the human spirit.  

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 5th, 2018

 

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