In the fight for human rights and democracy, a single spark can ignite a mighty flame, as illustrated by “1987: When the Day Comes,” a star-studded, fact-based political thriller that reconstructs a turning point in South Korean history triggered by the death of a student. Directed by Jang Joon-hwan with a combination of humanistic ardor and intelligent insight comparable to the measured procedural mode of “Spotlight,” this is a compelling depiction of how brave individuals from all walks of life mobilized a whole nation to bring a recalcitrant dictator and his henchmen to their knees.
“1987” grossed about $14.2 million domestically in less than a week of release and should gather momentum through positive critical buzz. For anyone interested in contemporary Korean history, its sweeping social canvas also provides an informative context for the more intimately-grounded activist-themed hits “The Attorney” and “A Taxi Driver.”
Jang, best known for the surreal political satire “Save the Green Planet” and equally eccentric crime thriller “Hwayi: A Monster Boy” has shed all stylistic quirks, gaining gravity through a more balanced tone. The ambitious screenplay by Kim Kyung-chan encompasses a wide spectrum of Korean society: government, police, jurisdiction, press, prison, religious institutions, dissidents, labor unions, and academia — each contributed to the chain of events triggered by college student Park Yong-chul’s death by torture inside the Anti-Communist Investigations Bureau (ACIB) on Jan. 14, 1987.
Like a symphony that starts with a solo in the first movement, the story focuses on a singular act of resistance by Prosecutor Choi (“The Tunnel” star Ha Jung-woo) when called on by ACIB officers to sign a warrant authorizing the student’s instant cremation without an autopsy. It’s illegal, of course, but standard precedure under President Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship, where summary execution is commonplace.
Perhaps Choi’s distaste for these state-sanctioned thugs has reached tipping point, or he’s just annoyed his noodles got soggy due to their interruption, but he issues a counter order demanding an autopsy. Ha projects a delightfully cocky and pig-headed persona, whose motives for thwarting their coverup are almost petty, implying that history is often made more through chance than by design.
As rabid Commie-hater Director Park Jeol-won (Kim Yoon-seok) steps in to pull his weight over police and court, Choi finds his sense of mission, tipping off journalist Yoon (Lee Hee-jun), whose front-page report whips up a storm. In a way, the excesses of authoritarianism are personified by Kim’s bravura performance as Park, who swings from smug to hysterical, gripping viewers with disgust and pity in one electrifying confessional scene.
Jang evokes the liberating sensation of defiance as more people rise up. He also juxtaposes the heart-wrenching hysteria of Yong-chul’s family at the morgue with a quiet moment of bleak poetry when the father scatters his ashes on a frozen lake. Even more impressive is Jang’s refrain from prurient prolonged sessions of torture that other Korean filmmakers might have indulged in, and the fleetings hints of brutality have a more lingering impact.
The narrative continues to spread out on multiple fronts, shifting to a prison where, by an improbable coincidence, a liberal activist is locked up in the same jail as two ACIB officers (Park Hee-soon and Park Ji-hwan) sent there by Director Park to take the heat. Attention turns to correctional officer Han Byung-yong (Yoo Hai-jin), who helps the activist smuggle secret notes out to opposition leader Kim Jung-nam (Sol Kyung-gu).
Yoo, who struck up such jocular rapport with Song Kang-ho in “A Taxi Driver” more than rises up to this pivotal role, infusing both warmth and grit to an earthy grass-roots stereotype. Unfortunately, so much plot advancement is pegged to Han that he functions mostly as a technical device, rather than forming engaging relationships.
The exception may be Han’s affectionate bond to his niece Yeon-hee (Kim Tae-ri from “The Handmaiden”), whose skepticism and reluctance to help him on his dangerous missions reflects the fears and insecurity of the majority population living in constant oppression, making her the most human character. However, her tentative romance with activist classmate Lee Han-yeol (Gang Dong-won, distractingly handsome) ambles in a halfhearted way.
Since the film is committed to showing the snowball effect of a democratic movement, the episodic narrative functions like a relay race in which each protagonist passes the baton down to the next. Meticulously detailed editing by Yang Jin-mo and sharp, focused cinematography by Kim Woo-hyung keep the linear chronology on track amid myriad locations and incidents. Still, characters seem to just come and go, rather than synergizing as one tight ensemble. The second half also falls back on crowd-pleasing melodrama, weaving in showy chase scenes (in which Kim Jung-nam is framed in a Christ-like visual trope). Yet there’s no denying that the end, which comes full circle to present the fate of another student (also based on a real person like Park Jong-chul) brings the story to a rousing close.