The Korea Herald


[Herald Review] '12.12: The Day' avoids usual pitfalls of historical films

Viewers in 20s and 30s say they 'learned history through the movie'

By Kim Da-sol

Published : Nov. 29, 2023 - 16:14

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“12.12: The Day” (Plus M Entertainment) “12.12: The Day” (Plus M Entertainment)

On Dec. 12, 1979, one of the most significant days in modern Korean history, Gen. Chun Doo-hwan led a military coup, establishing expanded martial law and leading to the shutdown of the National Assembly and universities, as well as the arrests of dissidents and members of the political opposition. The event later led to the Gwangju Democracy Uprising of May 1980.

The director of “12.12: The Day”, Kim Seong-su, who has helmed various hit action noirs, including “Beat” (1997), “City of the Rising Sun” (1999) and “Asura: The City of Madness” (2016), has cleverly depicted nine hours of the military coup that unfolded on that day.

Kim uses subtitles and explanations of the timeline of events to help the audience keep up with the complex historical incidents unfolding in the film -- background on Chun and his allies, the goings-on at the presidential office, the state of mind of the defense minister, and the kidnapping of the army chief of staff. Much like footnotes in a text, the explanations are not excessive and help the audience understand what happened.

Although the film’s motif is based on real events, the names of the characters have been altered to allow for a fictionalized plot line. Lead actors Hwang Jung-min, who stars as Chun Doo-gwang, and Jung Woo-sung, who stars as Lee Tae-shin, a figure opposed to Chun and aims to deter the military coup, are portrayed flawlessly and tell the story of the fateful day through realistic acting.

Their fierce chemistry explains why Kim chose to cast them again after his 2016 action crime flick “Asura: The City of Madness.”

To fully transform himself into the country’s infamous leader, Hwang said he spent three to four hours in makeup and hair to look like Chun, who was bald.

Hwang succeeded in becoming Chun in almost every aspect, skillfully imitating him in his accent and bulldozer-like demeanor, even perfecting his gait.

“12.12: The Day” (Plus M Entertainment) “12.12: The Day” (Plus M Entertainment)

With some 70 supporting characters, such as the soldiers on armored vehicles ready to enter Seoul, the film accurately depicts the heaviness of the day.

While the historical event may be unfamiliar to those in their 20s and 30s who have only read about it in textbooks or news articles, “12.12: The Day” has grabbed the attention of young moviegoers, something that has come as somewhat of a surprise.

While November is typically a slow season for movies and films about historical events don't tend to be so popular among young and female audiences, “12.12: The Day” has gained popularity among those in their 20s and 30s, who accounted for 25 percent and 30 percent of ticket reservation rates, respectively, according to CGV.

“I learned about history through this film. It was the most effective history class that I’ve ever taken,” wrote a moviegoer on a review site.

If the trend continues, the film is expected to surpass its breakeven point at 4.6 million admissions, according to industry insiders.

“The fact that this movie has elicited such a passionate reaction among general moviegoers and offers many things to discuss after watching brings people to the cinema through word of mouth,” said an official from a local movie multiplex.

According to Korea Film Council data, “12.12: The Day” attracted 2 million moviegoers in just six days after its release on Nov. 22.