3rd London East Asia Film Festival: In Conversation with Jang Joon-hwan, Director of ‘1987: When the Day Comes’

Jang Joon-hwan’s first journey into filmmaking started in 1994, when he directed the short film 2001 Imagine. Before moving to make his first feature Save the Green Planet an odd mix of genres such as thriller, comedy and science fiction, that is now considered to be a cult film he worked as a cinematographer, scriptwriter and even gave a helping hand in the lighting department. Years later, Jang Joon-hwan made his second feature Hwayi: A Monster Boy, starring Kim Yoon-seok and Yeo Jin-goo. With this film, he proved how exciting, intelligent and action-packed the thriller genre can be.

In 2017, Jang Joon-hwan directed 1987: When the Day Comes, a fascinating piece of work that concentrates on the turbulent year of 1987 in South Korea. During the 3rd London East Asia Film Festival, we met with the director and talked about his latest work, the casting process for the film and his own experience during the events of 1987.

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Jang Joon-hwan on the set of 1987: When the Day Comes (Picture © 1987: When the Day Comes and the photographer)

1987: When the Day Comes is based on the events of 1987, when Park Jong-chul was unlawfully killed by the police during an interrogation, and the death of another student, Lee Han-yeol, who was tragically injured during one of the protests. What prompted you to make this film?

There have been a lot of films, footage and academic research about the Gwangju incident, but not that much has been said or done about what exactly happened in 1987. I thought that this is the story that has to be told, especially to the younger generation.

I was actually younger than these two students, and I was never active in the student movement or took part in the protests at that time. I felt like, after all of those years, it was my duty to make this film; it was like a debt that I owed.

You drew on an incredible cast in the film, what was the casting process like?

When I was working on the script, it was under the rule of the former now impeached president Park, so I had to do everything in secrecy. There wasn’t direct censorship, but there was a lot of indirect censorship, so I had to keep everything under wraps. I finished adapting the script, and then Gang Dong-won heard about the story and said that he knew it was a small role, but he felt like the story needed to be made and told. He wanted to be the character of Lee Han-yeol; Gang Dong-won set things going.

As I was working on the production, things changed drastically in the political arena, and I was able to get things going. Then Kim Yoon-seok and Ha Jung-woo came on board, but not just them; while I was working on the script and the casting, there were so many actors that said they would like to be a part of the film and contribute to the project. I think the power of the story itself and also the determination of everybody, thinking that the film had to be made, added to the story as well.

The character of Yeon-hee that is portrayed by Kim Tae-ri is not a character based on a particular person, yet it seems like she has a huge role to play in the film. Her transformation from an ordinary student to a rebel is significant. What did you feel was her purpose in the film?

Yeon-hee is the key figure in communicating or conveying the subtheme and a lot of people say that she is the only fictional character in the film; however, I am pretty sure there were many many people like her at that time. What is interesting is that history has been changed by people like her, average people, ordinary people; it’s just that history doesn’t record these people, that is all. I see her character in a different light.

This girl had a trauma because of her father; she didn’t believe that people can come together and bring about change for the good. But we see how she changes herself, how she grows and how she starts making different decisions, and I think this was the most powerful part of the theme and the story.

You also have characters based on real people in the film, including Lee Han-yeol and the prosecutor Choi Hwan. Was it hard for you to be creative with these characters? How much research did you have to do to stay as close as possible to their personas?

Just as it is the case with most films that are based on a true story and actual figures and in the case of this one, several of them are still alive you need a lot of research and information. But like I said, I was working on the script in secret, so I couldn’t go and contact them as the word would have spread. I looked up as many information as I could, checking newspapers and magazine articles, and I worked with that.

As for the prosecutor Choi Hwan the fact is, he is based on an actual person, but character-wise, I tried to portray him in a way that was more cinematic. A lot of people have different views about this person, because he has both pros and cons; what he did most of the time was put kids on trial and send them to prison, but on the other hand, he put his foot down and said: “No, you cannot torture them”. It was a very delicate subject and a very delicate character to work with. When it comes to Lee Han-yeol’s character, there isn’t much information about him, and I didn’t want him to be seen like a stuffed animal that stands for a passionate protester or activist; if I did show him like that, it would be a distortion of history. That was something I had to be careful about.

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1987: When the Day Comes cast in South Korea (Photo © Yonhap News) 

The climax scene of the film the protest scene is electrifying. It is also very upsetting, as the viewers witness the last minutes of Lee Han-yeol’s life. How did you film such a great scene, and where was it filmed? 

The main entrance to the Yonsei University, where it all took place, has changed; it looks very different now. And even if it had looked the same, there is no way I could have pulled off such a complicated scene. I had an open set made with the iconic entrance from those days and we also used some CGI to recreate the day when the protest happened. In order to recreate that scene, I needed a lot of extras, of course, and I was very concerned about everything. My wife, the actress Moon So-ri, helped me a lot. She was more active in the student movement; she helped me a lot on the set in terms of where everyone should be, how they should chant and what their gestures should be like.

Everybody was tense working on this scene, because we had a short time frame to finish it. It wasn’t easy, but because everyone came together, it was made possible to finish on time. Still, since I was so tense during that time, I don’t remember how I managed to do it.

Ultimately, how difficult was it for you to make this film and how did you cooperate with Kim Kyung-chan to bring his script to life on such a grand scale?

The first script that I saw… I don’t know if it was the first draft by the writer, but that was the the one that I saw. That was the time when I was asked if I was willing to do the story. Then I worked on it for 8 to 9 months along with the writer Kim Kyung-chan, and we talked a lot about everything. One of my concerns was that there were so many protagonists in the story; I asked, how are we going to bring all of their stories together into one? That was one of the big things we had to work on, the stories had to flow together towards a certain direction and that was a difficult thing to achieve.

The character of Yeon-hee was already in that first script, but she was quite different. She was supposed to be the daughter of the detective, the anti-communist detective, but I spoke to the writer and we switched it to her being a daughter of the prison warden. She was also too cheerful, too upbeat, so we changed that as well. The most difficult work we had to do on the script was to keep everything in balance, to maintain a good balance.

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Kim Yoon-seok and Jang Joon-hwan at the 3rd London East Asia Film Festival (Photo © LEAFF) 

As you mentioned, the film consists of many characters. How was it for you to work with so many established actors and how much of an artistic freedom did you give them during the filming? It must have been hard work.

Like you said, it wasn’t easy to work with so many established actors at once. They are all very unique and distinctive in their styles, and they all have their own styles. I had to work with a different mindset for each character and each actor to suit them. I tried to be specific to the character that I am talking to or working with. I felt that because that was the kind of cast that I had, rather than trying to force all of my ideas on them and having them following everything from A to Z, I thought it would be better if I listened to their ideas, opinions and suggestions and then try to incorporate that whenever it was possible rather than just insist on what I wanted. It definitely wasn’t easy, but when will I get another chance to work with so many great actors at once? (Laughs). It was really enjoyable for me as a director; it was a rare opportunity.

How did the Korean audience react to the film? And how do you feel now, knowing that the film impressed also foreign audiences, including the one in Udine, where the film was awarded Golden Mulberry audience award and Black Mulberry award

The response from the Korean audience was tremendous, not just from the generation that had experienced the events of 1987, but also the younger generation that came to see the film. At first, I was worried about how they would react, because I didn’t know if they could relate to the incident that happened so long ago. But I was wrong, as the young people who took part in the candle protest against the former president Park were easily able to see themselves as those young activists in the film; they understood the film.

When I was making this film, I wasn’t thinking about the international audience or anyone else outside of Korea. I was thinking only about the Korean audience, and I wanted to ask this question… This happened over 30 years ago and I wanted to look back over at the past and ask – are we really going in the right direction that those people tried to take? So when I went to Udine, I had that question in mind; I had no expectations whatsoever. I was very surprised at how well the film was received and how much it moved the audience, and how much they identified themselves with the film because the story is complex, there are so many characters etc… I assumed it would be too confusing, but they really got into it. They felt the same thing that the Korean audience felt, so that made me very happy. And I felt if the story is strong enough, powerful enough, it can reach people around the world.

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In 1987, you were a young man yourself, a teenager. How much were you aware of the case at that time? Did it influence your attitude towards the government in the 1980s? 

I was a senior in high school at that time and I was in school in Jeonju, which is a city not far from the Gwangju, where the massacre happened. I remember that there were many demonstrations around the country and I saw a few when I was on my way to school and from school; I smelled tear gas several times. All the teachers at our school were brainwashing us, saying that the protests are bad, so we shouldn’t go near them and shouldn’t even think about them. I was naive at that time and thinking to myself, what are these young people fighting for? Why are they so actively and passionately protesting I didn’t get it. Just like Yeon-hee’s character, when she sees the video of protesters being brutally beaten by the police and the army, I had a similar experience. In one of the Catholic churches close to my school, someone said that we could see a video, but it was all done in secret. And I saw the clip shot by the German reporter which later became the basis for the Taxi Driver film.

It was a huge shock, I was so scared. That video really affected me a lot. Possibly the seed, so to speak, for the 1987: When the Day Comes film was planted then. From that moment, I started seriously thinking about my existence. I think all of the emotions that I went through during my college years helped me make this film.

We would like to thank Jang Joon-hwan for taking the time to answer our questions and to London East Asia Film Festival for organising this interview.

Written and transcribed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Sanja Struna

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler and Sanja Struna

Interpreter – Roc Lee

All other pictures © CJ Entertainment










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