South Korean film 1987: When the Day Comes is the perfect political mirror for this season of activism and protest

Baradwaj Rangan

Dec 26, 2019 13:27:46 IST

As I write this, a German student has been asked to leave India after attending a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

He’d carried a poster that made a reference to the Nazi rule in his own country: “1933 to 1945 – we have been there”. As I write this, another student – a 20-year-old who participated in the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh – is dead. The bullet in his body has been revealed to have come from the service pistol of a police constable.

 South Korean film 1987: When the Day Comes is the perfect political mirror for this season of activism and protest

A still from 1987: When The Day Comes

This week, therefore, let’s talk about protest cinema. Let’s talk about 1987: When the Day Comes, the 2017 South Korean political thriller that’s drawn from real life and deals with the aftermath of the death of a student activist.

The boy’s name is Park Jong-chul. He was a student of Seoul National University, an activist protesting President Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship. A bit of history is necessary here. In 1980, following rumours of North Korean infiltration into South Korea, Chun Doo-hwan imposed martial law in the country. Universities were closed. Political rallies were banned. Freedom of the press was curtailed. On 18 May, 1980, when the citizens of Gwangju gathered to form what would become known as the Gwangju Democratisation Movement, Chun Doo-hwan unleashed his forces on the people. A bloody massacre ensued. Chun Doo-hwan earned the nickname “The Butcher of Gwangju.”

Park Jong-chul’s protests against this “butcher” were seen as a problem. Commissioner Park Cheo-won had him brought in for questioning, and when he refused to cooperate, he was waterboarded. He died on 14 January, 1987, and 1987: When the Day Comes picks up the real-life narrative that followed his demise.

The first hour or so is a tense stretch of cross-cutting between the many, many people involved on both sides: those who want to get to the root of what happened to Park Jong-chul and those who want the truth suppressed. The first act of resistance comes from Prosecutor Choi, who refuses to sign a warrant authorising the student’s instant cremation. He knows that’s what the government wants, but he insists on following procedure. He insists on an autopsy. 

A still from 1987: When The Day Comes

A still from 1987: When The Day Comes

Slowly, we build to another major character: Yeon-hee. She’s the niece of Han Byung-yong, a prison guard who’s a democracy activist. He asks her to take magazines scrawled with secret messages to his contacts. But one day, Yeon-hee refuses. She’s had enough. She tells her uncle, “Don’t you know how my father died? All his colleagues ran away at the first sign of trouble.” She’s scared for her uncle’s life. She’s scared that his courage alone won’t be enough, because there won’t be others supporting him. Han Byung-yong says, “(Your father) stood up for what was right. The company that didn’t pay the wages should be blamed, not the others.” Yeon-hee replies, “He didn’t start drinking because of the company. He drank because of the people that betrayed him.”

And so she’s become one of those people who’s decided it’s easier to not get involved with things. And then she runs into a student activist. He asks her to join their “cartoon club” and hands her a pamphlet. The cartoons are political. A headline goes: “Appeal against dictatorship and torture”. Yeon-hee asks, “You think you can change the world? Your ideals and dreams… Don’t you think about your family?” She’s still thinking about another idealist: her father. She turns the pamphlet. On the other side is the sheet music for a song titled 'When the Day Comes.' "My lost brothers’ faces / All the painful memories / And the agonizing wait / Won’t be a lost cause / When the day comes." Yeon-hee says, “No such day will come. Stop dreaming and wake up.”

Of course, she will be proved wrong. The day did come. The June Democracy Movement ended the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan. 1987, directed by Jang Joon-hwan, was a big success, and it has lines that resonate across all authoritarian regimes. Sample: “Our only weapon is the truth. And that truth will bring down this administration.” But the mark of a good screenplay is in how it deepens our understanding of everyone – not just the good guys, but also the villains. Why is this necessary? Because it shows us that evil doesn’t erupt from a vacuum.

Hence the scene where the Commissioner confronts Han Byung-yong, who’s been taken captive and is being tortured for information. He knows this man will not give up his secrets easily. He orders his goons to leave. He takes out a black-and-white photograph of his family, taken when he was a boy, and places it in front of Han Byung-yong. He begins to narrate a story. “Do you see this kid standing next to my mother? His name is Dong. We found him starving to death, so my mother took him in… He was like an older brother to me. But when Kim Il-sung came into North Korea, Dong got fascinated by the idea of people’s democracy. Do you know what he did to my family in the name of the Red Army? He called us the enemy! Reactionaries and landowners! To be sent to Hell!”

“He stabbed my father with a bamboo spear saying he shouldn’t waste bullets on him. I was hiding under the floor but I saw the whole thing. If I had tried to defend my family, do you think I could have saved my mother? I could have saved my sister. Because she died instead of me. Do you want to know what Hell is? It’s someone murdering your family while you stand helplessly by and watch. Not able to make a sound. That’s Hell.” His eyes have moistened with these memories. He seems… human. You think he is going to help Han Byung-yon. Instead, he whips out a photograph of Han Byung-yon’s sister and niece and places it in front of the earlier photograph. It’s pure blackmail – but at least, we understand a little bit about the blackmailer now. 

Why does this slice of South Korean history matter? The director told FilmDoo, “There are often times when individuals feel despair because they see others don’t try at all to change the world, but 1987 was also that kind of time…

But sometimes, if you don’t give up on your courage and the hope in your heart, others also kick back and then a miracle can happen... The water starts to boil when it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, but even if it’s at 98 Celsius, you don’t know whether it’s gonna boil and when it’s gonna boil. Sometimes you feel like others don’t have that kind of conscience or hope, but nobody knows. So it’s very important to keep your hope inside.”

All images from Twitter.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 13:30:22 IST