South Korea

Review: “12.12: The Day” Offers Faithful and Entertaining Dramatization of South Korea’s 12.12 Military Insurrection

With stars like Hwang Jung-min and Jung Woo-sung headlining, "12.12: The Day" is one of the most impactful Korean political films in recent memory.

By , 8 Jul 24 01:18 GMT

With the assassination of strongman Park Chung-hee on October 26, 1979, South Korea entered a period of political turmoil that eventually resulted in General Chun Doo-hwan seizing power as a new military dictator and cracking down on citizens in incidents like the May 1980 Gwangju Massacre. Consequently, movies about South Korean politics between 1979 and 1980 exist aplenty—from The President’s Last Bang to May 18 and beyond. While there have been decent entrants like Hunt and The Man Standing Next, 2017’s A Taxi Driver was probably the most recent Korean political movie about this two-year period which had a significant and enduring societal impact.

That changed almost six years later in November 2023 with the release of 12.12: The Day, whose directly translated Korean name “Seoul Spring” hints at the crushed hopes that some South Koreans had for political liberalization in the wake of Park Chung-hee’s death. 12.12: The Day quickly became a worthy counterpart to A Taxi Driver in regards to social and political impact, driving ticket sales and social media discussion among millions of South Koreans under 40 and becoming the sixth-highest grossing South Korean movie of all time. Despite covering a rather complex series of events, 12.12 is entertaining and accessible even for those with little knowledge of Korean politics. This doesn’t mean the film takes shortcuts with history though; in fact, 12.12 offers a remarkably accurate take on the 12.12 Military Insurrection that helped Chun Doo-hwan seize absolute control over South Korea’s military and government.

Two Sides to a Coup

Courtesy of

12.12 begins by presenting two opposing camps to the coup. On the side of coup initiators, there’s a set of high-ranking officers led by Major General Chun Doo-gwang (a thinly veiled analogue for Chun Doo-hwan, played by veteran actor Hwang Jung-min). By exploiting his position as head of the investigation into deceased President Park’s death, Chun plans to arrest the chief of South Korea’s army, General Jeong (based on the real-life Jeong Seung-hwa), and take over South Korea by virtue of martial law.

However, Jeong knows Chun is up to no good, and appoints a loyal and principled Major General named Lee Tae-shin (based on Jang Tae-wan, and played by Jung Woo-sung) as commander of the Capital Garrison Command, which controls all the troops around Seoul and would be instrumental in preventing a coup. Lee, and other officers around him, represent those trying to prevent a coup.

The film then documents what transpired in the days leading up to December 12, 1979, and then spends most of its runtime on the events of December 12 itself when Chun orders his troops to arrest General Jeong. As Chun’s coup kicks off, General Lee and his allies are caught off guard by Chun’s crafty tactics, and must prevent troops loyal to Chun from seizing Seoul’s key political sites before it’s too late.

A Framing of Good v. Evil

Courtesy of Hive Media.

Those who watch many Korean movies and dramas will likely recognize much of 12.12’s cast. Besides Hwang Jung-min and Jung Woo-sung playing the antagonist and protagonist, a litany of other top stars play supporting roles: Lee Sung-min (Reborn Rich, Misaeng, etc.) as General Jeong, Park Hae-joon (The World of the Married) as a character based on Roh Tae-woo, Kim Sung-kyun (Reply 1988, D.P., Divorce Attorney Shin) as a Brigadier General allied with Lee, and so forth. This likely boosted the film’s appeal among broader audiences. However, people who’ve watched many recent Korean political movies (like yours truly) might initially find the cast slightly confusing given the same actors also had roles in other Korean movies dramatizing the same 1979-1980 period—most notably Jung Woo-sung playing a character in 2022’s Hunt whose political disposition is rather similar to Lee Tae-shin’s.

Nevertheless, by painting two clear opposing sides and spending enough effort characterizing Chun and Lee with contrasting personalities—the former deranged and power-hungry, the latter gentle and noble—12.12 frames the December 12 coup in “good versus evil” terms that layperson audiences can easily internalize. Furthermore, the film excels at creating points of tension where those who are not firmly on either of the two sides must choose where their loyalties lie. Moments of dramatization—for instance Lee standing on a bridge to block a truck column, or ordering artillery units to target Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun square—help viewers understand the stakes at play. In this sense, one does not need any knowledge of Korean politics to appreciate the inherent drama of 12.12.

Historical Accuracy and Heart Rate Challenges

Courtesy of Hive Media.

Besides certain instances of dramatic license such as the aforementioned Gwanghwamun and bridge scenes—12.12 actually stays quite true to the historical record of the December 12, 1979 Military Insurrection and its aftermath. Key character details, like how Lee Tae-shin (as proxy for Jang Tae-wan) graduated from Officer Candidate School and had a college-aged son during 1979, are true to life—in fact, Jang Tae-wan’s son was mysteriously murdered in the aftermath of Chun’s takeover in real life. The role of the Hanahoe secret society of Korea Military Academy alums who back Chun is also quite accurate, as are other details like South Korea’s President signing an order for General Jeong’s arrest as “ex-post facto” in a small protest of Chun’s strong-arming, and the Minister of Defense seeking refuge on a US military base when he catches wind of a coup attempt. Even the movie’s end scene, where Chun’s victorious coup confederates take a group photo, is adapted from an actual photo that Chun Doo-hwan and his conspirators took in the aftermath of December 12, 1979.

It’s not often that a movie that’s both so historically accurate and entertaining comes around, which makes 12.12 especially laudable. The film is also worth calling out for its societal impact; supposedly individuals in their 20s and 30s made up over 50% of 12.12’s theatrical viewership. Word-of-mouth among young Koreans drove the movie’s success, with a “heart rate challenge” where viewers recorded their heart rate during the movie contributing to social media buzz. 12.12’s popularity re-ignited discussion around the 12.12 Military Insurrection, and even led to a resurgence of interest in other South Korean movies and dramas about the events of 1979 like The Man Standing Next and The Fifth Republic.

• • •

12.12: The Day (Korean: 서울의 봄)—Directed by Kim Sung-su. Running time 2hr 21min. First released November 22, 2023. Starring Hwang Jung-min, Jung Woo-sung, Lee Sung-min, Park Hae-joon, Kim Sung-kyun.

This article is part of Cinema Escapist’s dedicated coverage of the 2024 New York Asian Film Festival.

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