Udine 2024 Review: 12.12: THE DAY, Riveting Drama Brings Dark Episode of Korean History Into the Light

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
Udine 2024 Review: 12.12: THE DAY, Riveting Drama Brings Dark Episode of Korean History Into the Light

One of the final dark closets of modern Korean history gets thrown wide open in Kim Sung-soo's riveting historical drama 12.12: The Day. The film dramatises the coup d'état that took place in the wake of the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in late October 1979, which on its surface seems like a risky gambit, as it is a bitter story that begins with a calamitous moment and ends on an even darker note, with even worse things soon to come.

Though the names of the characters have been changed -- Korea has very stringent libel laws -- the film centers on the quick manoeuvring that took place in the power vacuum that followed President Park's death. In a terrific and gleefully scene-chewing performance, Hwang Jung-min plays General Chun Doo-gwang, modelled on soon-to-be dictator Chun Doo-hwan.

General Chun is in charge of the commission investigating the assassination, but behind the scenes, he is positioning the members of his private military group of hardliners known as Hanahoe ("group of one") to overthrow the interim government through a coup he plans for December 12. This sets up a standoff with the factions within the military who aim to uphold the rule of law, led by General Lee Tae-shin (Jung Woo-sung), a character based on Jang Tae-wan, who is in charge of the Seoul garrison.

While the English title of the film merely references the day of the coup, the Korean title, "Seoul Spring," holds far more meaning for local viewers. In the wake of Park's death there was hope that Korea would move from autocratic rule to democracy, thus citizens began to dream of a Seoul Spring, but Chun's coup dashed that hope overnight. It would be eight more years before spring could be dreamed of again; for context on the events that led to Korea's democratisation, the similarly sprawling and intense 1987: When the Day Comes is essential viewing.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Jung Woo-sung delivering the best performance of his career as a character that is positioned as the hero of the narrative, yet was also part and parcel of the dark regime that preceded Chun's reign.

But with his larger-than-life performance of a real-life monster, and given his eerie resemblance to President Chun, Hwang commands the picture. The gangly star of memorable hits such as Veteran (a role he will return to in Cannes this year through the sequel I, the Executioner) is in his element here with a ferocious performance that walks a thrilling line between charisma and menace.

He's played similar characters before, for Director Kim in Asura: The City of Madness and in the recent Netflix tentpole Narco-Saints, but his take on the soon-to-be despot takes things a step further. Local viewers in particular will have a hard time shaking his maniacal cackle, which echoes through a dank bathroom in a chilling moment late in the film.

Given the subject matter, which filmmakers hadn't dared bring to the screen before, the film naturally became a talking point, but what seals the deal is the construction and confidence of the picture itself. Effortlessly breezing through the complex levels of a military government in chaos, the film is marvellously edited, creating the effect of successive waves lapping up on a shore, steadily reaching a crescendo during a stormy night.

The narrative coalesces around two central opposing figures, but in many ways it is about all the people in between, the many cogs in governance whose self-serving decisions on December 12 led to modern Korea's darkest era. General Chun, a seductive figure, is constantly surrounded by his cronies, while General Lee, though respected, is a loner. All he has is justice and his honour, and in the end this is what loses him the battle. General Chun wins the day through fear-mongering and by appealing to the base impulses of the people who hold the keys to the various doors his coup needs to proceed through.

The film chronicles a confrontation that largely happened behind closed doors but Director Kim wrings tension out of every frame. Quiet phone calls mobilise opposing battalions, which head to Seoul in the dead of night while the city sleeps, unaware of the danger rolling past their doorsteps. An essential chronicle of Seoul's darkest night and a cracking piece of cinema, 12.12: The Day has brought its story into the light.

12.12: The Day

  • Kim Sung-su
  • In-pyo Hong
  • Won-Chan Hong
  • Young-jong Lee
  • Hwang Jung-min
  • Jung Woo-sung
  • Lee Sung-min
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Chun Doo-hwanKorean history김성수서울의 봄정우성황정민Kim Sung-suIn-pyo HongWon-Chan HongYoung-jong LeeHwang Jung-minJung Woo-sungLee Sung-minActionDramaHistory

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