17-year-old Yu Gwan-sun was an organiser in what would come to be known as the March 1st Movement, a protest against Imperial Japanese colonial rule of Korea in South Chungcheong. It did not immediately result in Korea’s independence, but crystallised a sense of national unity and was a catalyst for the resistance. Today, the 1st of March is a national holiday in South Korea, where the 100th anniversary of the movement was commemorated this year.
On the 1st of April 1919, 3,000 people gathered at Aunae, a marketplace in Cheonan. Yu was there, distributing homemade taegeukgi (Korean national flags) and giving speeches calling for independence. The Japanese military police arrived and fired on the crowd, killing 19 people. Yu’s parents were among the dead.
After Yu's arrest and trial, she was sentenced to five years in Seodaemun Prison. During her imprisonment, Yu continued to support the Korean independence movement, which resulted in her being severely tortured by Japanese prison officers.
On the 1st March 1920, Yu prepared a large-scale protest with her fellow inmates in honour of the first anniversary of the March 1st Movement. Yu was imprisoned separately in an isolated cell. She died on the 28th September 1920 from injuries she sustained from beatings.
There have been several biographical films of Yu in the past and historical dramas often suffer from a certain stodgy remove, but in ‘A Resistance’, director Jo Min-ho takes his audience deep inside a particular place and time, delving into Yu's emotions as she spends her days inside the prison along with other inmates.
Filmed in grim black and white, it opens with Yu (Ko A-sung, 'The Host', ‘Snowpiercer’) transferring to Seodaemun Prison to begin three years of her sentence. She shuffles out of the back of a truck, ankles chained, one of her eyes nearly swollen shut. The camera zooms in on the face of Prisoner 371 while the prison guard takes her picture for her registration card. From these first moments, the film tries to make audiences viscerally feel the hurt and fury that springs from institutional victimisation.
Yu is shocked when she is brought to her cell; a tiny room with an uncovered window that is shared by 24 other women. Because of the cramped (and often freezing) space, the female inmates were unable to lie down, and the women had to walk around in circles (not unlike “walking the wheel” in Alan Parker’s ‘Midnight Express’) to keep the circulation flowing in their legs. As they trudge in slow circles, they sing. Inmates in other cells respond, enraging the Japanese prison guards. With the help of a Korean man named Jeong Chun-yeong, who works as an interpreter for the Japanese officials at the prison, the guards find out it was Yu who led the group and drag her out to torture her (these scenes are brutal but never gratuitous) before locking her in The Wall (a tiny concrete closet with manacles for her feet).
The camera zooms in on the face of Prisoner 371 while the prison guard takes her picture for her registration card. From these first moments, the film tries to make audiences viscerally feel the hurt fury that springs from institutional victimisation.
The life of Yu inside the prison and her interactions with other inmates have largely been fictionalised by Jo. Mostly this is in aid of humanising Yu, allowing the audience to see her as a more complex and vulnerable human being as opposed to a thinly-sketched mythological symbol of patriotic fervour, whose only goal was to martyr herself for the freedom of her country. She is scared and sad, yet encouraged by the tight bond of the other inmates, who include a gisaeng (female courtesan) turned "comfort woman" for the Japanese named Kim Hyang-hwa, a schoolmate named Gwon Ae-ra and a dabang (coffee shop) worker named Lee Ok-I.
"Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic." Wim Wenders put those words in the mouth of Sam Fuller, who played a cinematographer in Wenders' 1982 film about filmmaking, 'The State Of Things'. Keeping with this spirit, Jo uses coloured flashback sequences, taking place before the pain and suffering, that help paint a vibrant picture of Yu’s background with her parents and goofy brother (who we later learn is incarcerated in the same prison facility) as well as her secret activism.
Occasionally the film stumbles with the dialogue that Jo has allocated for Yu, reducing her to spouting revolutionary catchphrases, but Ko A-sung’s portrayal remains powerful, even during scenes of silence.
Though South Korea may be well-known for its K-pop and K-dramas, an increasing amount of the country’s best movies are highly influenced by Korea’s difficult and often turbulent history. By using cinema as a medium to bring to light major events in the country’s past such as Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and military rule in the late 1900s, the Korean film industry continues to prove its high calibre of craft through its deep and thoughtful storytelling.
‘A Resistance’, like Yu Kwan-Soon and the best crusaders, manages to keep the faith.