K-MOVIE (Movie Review) '12.12: The Day': anatomy of tension-filled 9-hr...

(Movie Review) ‘12.12: The Day’: anatomy of tension-filled 9-hr coup that changed Korean history


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By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, Nov. 13 (Yonhap) — The historical drama “12.12: The Day” revisits the fateful nine hours of a military coup on Dec. 12, 1979, that plunged South Korea’s already chaotic political situation into further disarray.

During the hours, a gang of military figures, led by Chun Doo-kwang (Hwang Jung-min), stages a military coup to gain control of the army amid a political vacuum following the assassination of military dictator Park Chung-hee and the subsequent imposition of martial law.

Based on real events peppered with fictional tales, the movie intricately — and frantically — weaves through Chun’s ride, driven by personal greed and political ambition, which capitalizes on the military’s internal divisions and frictions.

Perhaps more agonizing to watch is the military’s grave incompetence and bottomless pit of desire that put individual comfort and safety before safeguarding the nation.

A poster of “12.12: The Day” is seen in this image provided by Plus M Entertainment on Nov. 13, 2023. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Only a few officers, centered around Capital Defense Commander Lee Tae-shin (Jung Woo-sung), stake everything to stand up against the coup and thwart Chun’s scheme, while the defense minister runs away from the approaching rebel forces for fear of his safety and sly generals side with Chun for future gains.

The extreme chaos and confusion inside the military over who is in command and whose orders one should follow are starkly portrayed in the juxtaposition of the scenes wherein officers make frantic calls to ask for — and discourage — backup.

Director Kim Sung-su once again cast Hwang and Jung as the two lead characters, as they took the central roles in Kim’s 2016 action crime flick “Asura: The City of Madness.”

Hwang spent four hours in the makeup chair each day to become arguably one of the country’s most-hated political figures.

And his dedication paid off: The actor flawlessly transformed himself into the man who violently seized power and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1980 to 1988, capturing his bald head, bulbous nose and characteristically shameless demeanor.

The veteran actor’s performance as Chun reaches a climax in a spine-chilling bathroom scene, where he is seen peeing and laughing an evil, wicked laugh in front of a mirror to congratulate himself on the success of the coup. The scene marks the beginning of the country’s long and arduous struggle for democracy.

Actor Jung Woo-sung (C), who plays Lee Tae-shin in "12.12: The Day," is shown in the photo provided by Plus M Entertainment on Nov. 13, 2023. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Actor Jung Woo-sung (C), who plays Lee Tae-shin in “12.12: The Day,” is shown in the photo provided by Plus M Entertainment on Nov. 13, 2023. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Some scenes were filled with stereotypical good-versus-evil cliches, like the face-off between triumphant Doo-kwang and desperate Tae-shin. In one scene seemingly intended to add a dramatic effect and portray him as a brave, righteous but lone warrior, Tae-shin looks up at the statue of Korea’s legendary Admiral Yi Sun-shin at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square while being cornered by the rebel force.

The film ends as the Chun-led private military club Hanahoe proudly poses for a group photo to mark the success of what they call “revolution.”

This image gradually fades, giving way to the historically well-documented real-life scene in Korean history. It symbolizes individuals who betrayed their nation’s trust through a doomed military coup that left only a fleeting mark on Korea’s long history of democracy.

The movie is set to hit local theaters next Wednesday.



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