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12.12: The Day - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Seo-ul-eui bom

South Korea 2023

Politics, Drama

Kim Seong-su

Hwang Jung-min
Jung Woo-sung
Lee Sung-min
Park Hae-joon
Kim Sung-kyun
Kim Eui-sung
Jung Dong-hwan

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12.12: The Day

12.12: The Day - Film Screenshot 1

Story: It's the year 1979 and Korean President Park Chung-hee was killed. Politically, there is a lot of chaos behind the scenes. The Defense Security Commander Chun Doo-hwan (Hwang Jeong-min), is tasked with solving the circumstances around the assassination of the president and finding possible instigators. In the meantime, Lee Tae-sin (Jung Woo-sung) is promoted against his will and becomes the Capital Defense Commander. Soon, his position will be of utmost importance because Chun is planning a coup. Chun arrests the army's chief of staff for alleged involvement in the president's assassination. However, he does not get the consent of the new president in office beforehand. In addition, there are also many people within the army who are part of the military secret society Hanahoe, which Chun Doo-hwan founded himself. Initially, the members of this society ask themselves whether a coup is really a good idea, but since they have already been too involved and the plan has advanced too much, they let themselves be mobilized by Chun, and so parts of the military want to bring the capital under their control. Lee Tae-sin therefore tries with all his might to mobilize the military, which has not been infiltrated by Hanahoe, to protect Seoul. Eventually, violent conflicts break out on the streets of the city and a civil war is looming...

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Review: It is not a coincidence that more and more movies about President Chun Doo-hwan can be found in Korean cinemas nowadays. When it comes to history, you need a certain amount of distance to events to be able to deal with the dark chapters of a country. So far, there have mainly been cinematic works that revolved around Park Chung-hee, his military dictatorship and assassination, for example "The Man Standing Next" a few years ago. Park's successor Chun Doo-hwan has also been the subject of several thriller dramas, but they largely dealt with the atrocities committed by the regime in the country (e.g. "1987: When the Day Comes" or "National Security"). This time, though, we get to see the circumstances that led to the military coup by Chun Doo-hwan in surprising detail, despite there certainly being some artistic freedom here and there. The result is a suspense-packed thriller; nevertheless, it lacks people we can relate to so that the story could work on an emotional level too. On the other hand, you have to be grateful that Korea's collective scar wasn't just cheaply used to pull at your heartstrings.

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There's no doubt that "12.12: The Day" will have a different significance for Koreans than it will for international viewers. Above all, this will become obvious in the last images of the epilogue, which lead us into reality and are not intended to make it easy - for those ignorant of history - to grasp the extent of the consequences this seizure of power had. As a movie which is inevitably interested in having a certain entertainment value, "12.12: The Day" offers a fast pacing and quick editing, while the soundtrack also pushes the events forward in an unobtrusive way. Since this is based on a true story, the stakes could not be higher, and additionally, director Kim Seong-su manages to keep every minute suspense-packed, although most viewers will know how things turn out in the end. In order to achieve this, Kim also uses the chaos of events that unfold as well as Chun's need to have the coup succeed if he does not want to end up on the gallows. Moreover, the trial of strength between Chun and Lee Tae-sin, to whom different parts of the military are loyal, is the basis for the never-ending suspense.

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For those involved - aside from Chun and Lee, of course - it is hard to assess whose side they are supposed to be on. As people on the losing side will inevitably be labeled as traitors and meet a cruel end. Depending on how the balance of power shifts, some people also change sides. This even turns out quite grotesque at times and could almost make you laugh if the topic weren't so serious. For example, a troop gets sent back and forth when the people in power first sound the attack, then call it off again, only to then cancel the last command yet again. With that, director Kim manages to capture the chaotic nature of this night pretty well. And the fact that most of the movie takes place in one night also gives it a gripping atmosphere, an atmosphere that you are immediately sucked into, also thanks to the well-done sets. The scale of events is also made clear by numerous shots of the streets with tanks and military vehicles driving on them, so there is no need for big gunfights to show what is at stake. Actually, the few action scenes featured are rather unimportant and don't contribute anything special to the story.

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Unfortunately, some of the supporting characters turned out pretty clichéd, like the Minister of Defense. Moreover, there are one or two subplots that seem out of place. Above all, this includes the story of two friends who find themselves on different sides. This might have had an added value if there hadn't only been a few minutes between the introduction and the conclusion of this storyline. It obviously doesn't manage to touch us emotionally. Other than that, the strength of "12.12: The Day" is certainly not its character development. After "Asura: The City of Madness" director Kim Seong-su once again works with Hwang Jeong-min and Jung Woo-sung. With his subtle acting Jung Woo-sung fits well into the role of the commander, but also has a few more convincing scenes. But as you might have expected, it's Hwang who steals the show. Since Hwang generally already has such a distinctive look, I couldn't help but focus on his "wig" with the thinning hair, but even though that continued to distract me until the end, Hwang is still able to deliver a completely different role than usual, and therefore manages to portray Chun in a believable and untypically dangerous way.

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So it's mainly Hwang's acting that carries us through the movie. Otherwise, you hardly have any time to catch your breath. With all the developments and all the chaos, it may sometimes be difficult to keep track of various details, though. Especially those who are not quite familiar with the historical background - specifically Park's assassination and Chun's subsequent reign - may feel a little thrown in at the deep end. In which case, I recommend watching the aforementioned movies first. "12.12: The Day" deals with the beginning of a difficult time in Korea, which - even though it also involved economic growth - left many scars due to the military dictatorship (see the student protests and the Gwangju massacre). The more historical knowledge you have, the more you will be able to take away from Kim's movie on an emotional level. Because, as mentioned before, the director otherwise refrains from creating cheap melodrama. With a running time of more than 140 minutes, the movie might have outstayed its welcome a little bit, but thanks to the consistently fast pacing, you can forgive that. It's a gripping political thriller that won't resonate with everyone in the same way.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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