Director: Kim Seong-su
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Jung Woo-Sung, Lee Sung-Min, Park Hae-Joon, Kim Sung-Kyun, Jeong Man-Sik, Jung Hae-In, Nam Yun-Ho, Jeong Dong-Hwan
Running Time: 141 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When a country goes through a period of turmoil and trauma, it’s always interesting to see how much time passes in order for those feelings to be collectively processed, arriving at a point where the events in question lose enough of their rawness to start being reflected in the arts. After the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, it would be director Lee Man-hee’s 1963 production The Marines Who Never Returned that would be one of the first to portray the war onscreen, with the decade that had passed offering enough time for audiences to embrace a story that unfolds on the battlefield. In more recent times Korean cinema has reflected a willingness to start looking back on the tumultuous decade that was the 1980’s, when from 1980 – 1988 the country went through one of its darkest periods under the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan.
While the period has been covered before in the likes of Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (1996) and Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999), it’s a more recent trio of productions (which notably aren’t intentionally connected) that have looked to map the events of the one of the ugliest periods in South Korean history for a mainstream audience. Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next (2020) covered the 40 days leading up to the assassination of president Park Chung-hee on 26th October 1979. Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (2017) would take place during the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980, during which Doo-hwan ordered the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of democracy protestors. Jang Joon-kwan’s 1987: When the Day Comes (2017) covered the democracy protests of the same year that finally led to Chun’s downfall, and South Korea’s first true democratic election, from which the country hasn’t looked back.
The elephant in the room is that there hasn’t been a movie which charts Doo-hwan’s rise to power through his fateful coup d’état on 12th December 1979, 47 days after Jung-hee was assassinated. It’s understandable considering he’s one of the countries most reviled figures (and indeed, when the previously mentioned productions were released was still alive – he’d only pass away in 2021 aged 90), so much so that he was even the subject of the wish fulfilment thriller 26 Days in 2012, which sees the offspring of the Gwangju Massacre victim’s team up to kill him. However in 2023 the subject has finally been addressed with 12.12: The Day, which essentially picks up straight after the events which conclude The Man Standing Next, with Doo-hwan recruited to head up the investigation into the assassination.
Helmed by Kim Seong-su (Musa, The Restless), in 12.12: The Day he reunites Hwang Jung-min (The Point Men, Deliver Us from Evil) and Jung Woo-sung (Steel Rain 2: Summit, Beasts Clawing at Straws) from his previous outing in the director’s chair with 2017’s Asura: City of Madness. It’s Jung-min who gets to play Doo-hwan, while Woo-sung plays the Capital Defence Commander responsible for securing Seoul, and who ultimately remains one of the last few determined to oppose the coup. With a hefty 140-minute runtime, Seong-su wisely uses the opening 30 minutes to set the scene leading up to the 12th December, with the bulk of the runtime dedicated to playing out the 9 hours during which the coup unfolded.
Much like The Man Standing Next, Seong-su employs a straight-faced approach to the material, seemingly aware that the charisma and gravitas that his leading men bring to the screen will be enough to engage the audience. He isn’t wrong, although there’s also an assumption that the audience is familiar with the slice of history being portrayed, which can be seen as both a positive and a negative. A positive since there’s no time-consuming exposition dumps to bring the audience up to speed, but a negative for those unfamiliar, who may be left wondering why so much time is spent discussing who’s responsible for an assassination we never even see.
Thankfully regardless of the audiences familiarity with Korean history, once the coup begins to unfold, kicked off by Jung-min arranging for the Army Chief of Staff (ironically played by Lee Sung-min, who played Park Chung-hee in The Man Standing Next) to be arrested, the narrative becomes easy to follow along. What follows is a relentlessly tense standoff where frequently confusion reigns, nobody within the army is sure who’s on whose side, and all the while Jung-min edges ever closer to making what initially seems impossible become a reality. Indeed even as a non-Korean there’s a tangible sense of anger in watching 12.12: The Day, as the inevitable ending is that the bad guy wins, and with the knowledge of how much misery he’d bring in the succeeding years, it becomes clear there were so many chances when he could have been stopped.
While Jung-min’s portrayal of Doo-hwan involved sitting in makeup for 4 hours a day to accurately portray his appearance, there are times when his actual performance could be construed as somewhat caricature like in its nature. There’s certainly echoes of Jung-min’s villainous mayor from Asura: City of Madness, with the constant cursing and cackling laughter, however it’s also well noted that Doo-hwan as a person was known for his strong personality, and as an onscreen representation he certainly makes for someone who’s easy to hate. Standing in stark contrast is Jung Woo-sung’s commander who doesn’t trust Jung-min from the start, and finds himself in a frustrating tug of war once the coup starts, stacked up against other units who are either reluctant to get involved, or that have already had their pockets lined by Jung-min.
The broad supporting cast are stellar throughout, with strong turns from the likes of Park Hae-joon (Broker), Kim Sung-kyun (Seoul Vibe), Kim Eui-sung (Alienoid), and Park Hoon (Confidential Assignment 2: International) to name just a handful. Much like any production set in the political environment during this period, women characters are in short supply, with only Jeon Su-ji (Emergency Declaration) clocking in the most significant role as Woo-sung’s wife, and by significant that means she gets about 3 minutes of screen time. However this is far from a gripe, and as the director Seong-su does a stellar job of working with such an expansive cast, with everyone giving fully committed performances regardless of their screen time.
If anything, it’s only when the script calls for more typical mainstream elements to be incorporated into the narrative that 12.12: The Day flounders. A storyline involving 2 friend soldiers who end up on opposing sides, the kind of plot that’s worthy of a whole 140 minutes itself with productions like 2004’s Taegukgi, is here amusingly introduced and concluded within the space of 5 minutes, resulting in precisely zero emotional investment. Similarly characters like the cowardly Defence Minister who just wants to bury his head in the sand and make sure his own safety is taken care of feel cliched and one dimensional. However it could just as easily be seen as a positive that Seong-su decides to dedicate such little time to these particular tropes, as the result is that the narrative never descends into the histrionic fuelled melodrama that similar productions from the Korean peninsula frequently feel prone to do.
The subject matter of 12.12: The Day was always going to be a tricky proposition onscreen, with the end marking the beginning of Korea’s dark 8-year struggle to democracy, however Seong-su has delivered it within the framework of a fraught political thriller that has a sense of immediacy permeating throughout. As a history lesson, it’s an important one, and as a piece of cinema, it’s great to see the trio of director Kim Seong-su and stars Hwang Jung-min and Jung Woo-sung reunited again. Easily the best Korean movie of 2023.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10