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Korea Blog: Korean Cinema Looks Back at 1987, When Students Died and Democracy Was Born

At least once a week I walk by something called the Lee Han-yeol Memorial. Though located in a nondescript building down a side street full of them, it catches my eye every time, and at first got me me wondering, no doubt by design, who Lee Han-yeol was. Not that his dates, 1966-1987, didn’t already give a big historical hint. If an American man born in 1950 died in 1968, it brings to mind the Vietnam War; if he died 20 years later, AIDS. By the same token, if one hears of a Korean man born in the early to mid-1960s, the time of South Korea’s own postwar “baby boom,” who died in the 1980s, one might well wonder if he counts among the country’s martyrs for democracy. Lee turns out to rank near the top of that list, and though I didn’t know him by name, I did already know the story of his death, one cinematically told in the new 1987: When the Day Comes.

I never noticed any change in the appearance of the Lee Han-yeol Memorial until a few weeks ago, when on one of its outer walls appeared 1987‘s poster. Advertised for months in the run-up to its release this past week, the high-profile, star-studded picture ends in June of that year, just after by the encounter with a tear-gas grenade that killed Lee. It begins the January before, just after the fatal torturing of Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student activist detained by the authorities for questioning as to the whereabouts of his fellow agitators. The story relflects widely accepted narrative of South Korean political history that frames that year, and especially its series of protests known as the “June Struggle,” as the most critical period in the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy.

It also joins a recent spate of popular Korean films based on the country’s troubled decades between the Korean War and the end of the 20th century: Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장) told nearly the whole story of the country through the story of one fictional man. Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (변호인) dramatized the depredations of anti-communist paranoia through an episode in the thinly veiled life of Roh Moo-hyun, who defended accused North Korea sympathizers in court in the 1980s before his time as president in the 2000s. Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (택시운전사) looked at the Gwangju massacre of May 1980 through the eyes of titular cabbie who took a German journalist there to report on it. Most recently, Kim Hyun-seok’s I Can Speak made an only ostensibly lighthearted comedy out of the situation of the young Korean women made to serve as “comfort women” for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.