A Movie About the Chun Doo-hwan Coup Sweeps the Box Office

Hwang Jeong-min's portrayal of the venal dictator is a show-stopper.

A Movie About the Chun Doo-hwan Coup Sweeps the Box Office

Image: Poster for 12.12: The Day. Credit: PlusM Entertainment.

2023 has been a relatively slow year for South Korean cinema, with only The Roundup: No Way Out 범죄도시 3 featuring the ever-reliable action star Ma Dong-seok 마동석 breaking 10m viewers. But a late entrant is making waves. 12.12: The Day 서울의봄, which opened on November 22 and drew more than 4.6m viewers in just twelve days, putting it on pace to challenge The Roundup for this year’s top spot.

12.12: The Day tells the lightly fictionalized story of General Chun Doo-hwan 전두환’s coup in December 1979 and the resistance of General Chang Tae-wan 장태완, one of the handful of military leaders who fought Chun’s attempt to seize power after the death of dictator Park Chung-hee 박정희. Top star Jung Woo-sung 정우성 plays General Lee Tae-shin 이태신, the fictional stand-in for Chang. Hwang Jung-min 황정민, widely considered the best in business for portraying charismatic villains, plays Chun Doo-gwang 전두광, whose name - “Doo-gwang 두광” means “shiny head” - is a cheeky dig at the real-life dictator’s baldness.

Hwang’s transformation into Chun Doo-hwan is remarkable, and the uncanny physical resemblance of Hwang’s character to Chun is somehow only the second most impressive thing about his performance. Even more remarkable is Hwang’s unrelenting commitment to portraying Chun not as an anti-hero with his own brand of courage, but as a venal and twisted villain. Director Kim Seong-su 김성수 said: “Only Hwang Jung-min could portray Chun as I understood him - hunger and greed incarnate. I saw Hwang in Richard III, playing one of history’s most wicked and twisted characters, and I was shocked by how chilling Hwang could be.”

Jung Woo-sung, who plays opposite Hwang, said he was trying to explore the nature of goodness and justice: “It’s not about a sense of self-righteousness, or trying to judge what’s good and what’s evil. It’s more about the importance of human choice … Within yourself, there could be a Chun Doo-gwang, or one of the cowardly generals who stood by and watched, or there could be a Lee Tae-shin. The difference is what choice you make when the moment comes.” The result is a superb retelling of Chun’s coup that steers clear of the temptation - which many South Korean conservatives yield to - to glorify the victor.  12.12 rather emphasizes that Chun prevailed not because he was decisive or determined, but because too few people chose to be good.

The movie has been popular even among younger South Koreans with no personal experience of the Chun Doo-hwan regime, which lasted from 1980 to 1987. So compelling was the movie’s indictment of the dictator that it inspired a viral challenge in which moviegoers share their heart rates from their smartwatches after watching the movie. The movie’s rage-inducing ending,  which shows the insurrectionists going on to live long and comfortable lives, has left audiences’ pulses racing.

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