A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Joe Min-ho, 2019)

A Resistance poster 1March 1, 2019 marked the centenary of the Korean Independence Movement which began with a peaceful protest on 1st March, 1919 that was brutally put down by Japanese forces who fired on innocent protestors killing thousands and imprisoning many more. One of the key leaders of the protest was a teenage girl, Yu Gwan-sun, who died in prison a little over a year later aged just 17. Joe Min-ho’s A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Hanggeo: Yu Gwan-sun Iyagi) is the story of her struggle in which she remains defiant in the face of unfair and inhuman treatment at the hands of her Japanese captors.

The film opens with Gwan-sun (Go Ah-sung) being roughly pulled off a cart, unable to see thanks to the straw hat placed over her face. When the mask is removed for her prison registration card photo, we can see that (just as in the real photo which still exists and is on display in the Seodaemun Prison History Museum) her left eye and cheek are swollen from a previous beating. Taken inside, she is led to women’s cell 8 and shocked to see 24 other women already standing inside it when the door opens. There isn’t even enough room to sit down, and so the women have to take turns to rest, walking endlessly in circles to try and prevent their legs cramping up from standing too long in the same place.

On her first meeting with the prison warden who is surprised she has received such a comparatively long sentence (5 years, reduced to 3 on appeal), she is reminded that her best chance for survival is to keep her head down and do as she’s told. Gwan-sun intends to do just that but finds herself constantly infuriated by the injustice of the prison guards and the inhumane conditions in which the political prisoners are kept. Most of the women in the cell with Gwan-sun are there solely for having been at the protests and supposedly shouting “Manse”, they have committed no other crime save refusing to accept the primacy of Japanese authority.

The trouble starts when the women burst into a chorus of Arirang – a patriotic Korean folk song, which proves intolerable to the guards and gets Gwan-sun inducted for her first bout of extreme torture at the hands of her block warden and a Korean recruit working for the Japanese, Nishida (Ryu Kyung-soo). From a poor background, Nishida has thrown his lot in with the Japanese hoping for advancement but is unable to see that to them he will always be just another Korean minion to be discarded when no longer useful. Though he seems conflicted when directly ordered to participate in the torture of Gwan-sun, who is after all a defenceless 16-year-old girl, which involves acts of sexual humiliation and insidious violence, he fails to resist and dutifully obeys the orders of his Japanese commander.

Though her primary goal is Korean Independence, Gwan-sun is also working to end the kind of class oppression which has pushed Nishida into the arms of the Japanese. This much she reminds one of her cellmates (Jeong Ha-dam) who worries it would be inappropriate for them to be friends because she is just an uneducated woman working in a coffeeshop. Another of her cellmates is a “famous” gisaeng who finds herself looked down by some of the other women because of her participation in sex work. Inspired by a real life character, Kim Hwang-hwa (Kim Sae-byuk) was another key figure in the Independence Movement who began mobilising gisaeng to participate in the protests, motivated by the often cruel treatment they received from Japanese customers. The coffee shop girl laments that if she were a man she’d go to Manchuria or fly around the world. Kim Hwang-hwa reminds her there’s nothing stopping a woman from doing that anyway and eventually ends up in Manchuria herself looking for the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai. 

Despite emphasising the solidarity of the women in prison, Joe’s retelling of Yu Gwan-sun’s last days perhaps misses an opportunity to explore the important role that women played in the Independence Movement or the various ways it intersected with early feminism and progressive socialist politics. Nevertheless it does its best to pay tribute to a brave woman who suffered terribly in the belief that a better world was possible, refusing to give in even at the very end.


A Resistance screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Last Child (살아남은 아이, Shin Dong-seok, 2017)

Last Child posterPeople grieve in different ways. Some stop altogether, lost in a fog of confusion and regret, while others try to keep themselves busy or at least feel as if they are doing “something” to try and find whatever positivity they can in the midst of such terrible tragedy. The parents at the centre of Shin Dong-seok’s extraordinarily accomplished debut feature Last Child (살아남은 아이, Salanameun Ayi) find themselves on opposite sides of a grief divide after their son is killed trying to save another boy from drowning. While the mother is angry and resentful, the father finds strength in pride for his son’s act of heroism, nominating him for a local heroes award and donating the compensation money they have been awarded to their son’s school to fund a new scholarship place in his name.

Eunchan, the teenage son of Misook (Kim Yeo-jin) and Sungcheol (Choi Moo-seong), passed away some months ago leaving his parents numb and grief stricken. As far as they’re aware, Eunchan lost his life while valiantly trying to save that of another boy – Kihyun (Seong Yu-bin). Asking after the boy whom his son sacrificed his life to save, Sungcheol is dismayed to learn that he’s dropped out of school, possibly as a consequence of bullying and social stigma because of the well publicised incident he has been involved in.

Spotting Kihyun around town riding his delivery scooter, Sungcheol later decides to intervene when he catches sight of some other boys harassing him. Sungcheol buys the boy dinner and tells him to call if he ever needs anything. Kihyun, despite his obvious discomfort calls when the manager of the fast food restaurant he had been delivering for accuses him of lying about his bike being stolen. As Kihyun is a minor, he needs a responsible adult to talk to the police but his mother abandoned him years ago and though his father used to send money for his upkeep, he has now remarried and severed all connection with his son. Feeling sorry for the boy and not wanting Eunchan’s sacrifice to go to “waste”, Sungcheol offers Kihyun a job in his interior construction company as a trainee apprentice.

Though originally shy and afraid, Kihyun begins to blossom under the gentle, positive parental input of Sungcheol as he picks up the paternal reins, not only teaching him a trade but investing in him the confidence to succeed. Misook, horrified at first by her husband’s decision, begins to come around to this wounded young man who perhaps reminds her a little of her own son. Despite his lingering feelings of shame and guilt in accepting such kindness from the people he feels may continue to suffer solely because of his continued existence, Kihyun slowly starts to look on Misook and Sungcheol  as surrogate parents as they provide the love and care he has never really known from Sungcheol’s down to earth fatherly pep talks to Misook’s home cooked dinners.

Kihyun does, however, have a secret he has been withholding from Misook and Sungcheol which becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep the nicer they are to him and the more he comes to respect them. Though he might have been able to push it to the back of his mind, an unexpected meeting with another friend of Eunchan’s who was also there that fateful day convinces him he has to speak the truth no matter how much more pain it may to cause to all concerned (including himself).

Sungcheol had invested heavily in the heroic nature of his son’s death and finding out it might not have been quite so straightforwardly noble as originally described is a crushing blow for him. The reopening of a wound which had begun to scar pushes Misook and Sungcheol back into their respective corners as they each attempt to process the situation in their own particular way, beginning to mildly resent each other in the process. Meanwhile, having considered the matter closed, there is little appetite to reopen the investigation into Eunchan’s death. The other parents club together to keep their kids out of it while the school sends a polite message asking Misook and Sungcheol to leave it alone to avoid damaging the school’s reputation. Sungcheol, filled with a righteous anger and a need to find out what really happened to his son, is advised to drop the matter, that it’s better to be remembered as a “hero” rather than a “victim”, implying that Sungcheol ’s quest for “truth” is in someway sullying his son’s memory.

Kihyun, meanwhile, is a mess of conflicted emotions. Grieving himself for the family he’d begun to form with Misook and Sungcheol , he tries to move on with his life whilst hoping to somehow repair what has been broken. Kihyun is not a bad kid at heart, whether changed by his experiences or simply freed from a destructive environment, but he has done bad things which fill him with guilt and remorse compounded by the faith and kindness Misook and Sungcheol have tried to show him.

Yet good as they are, the intensity of their rage and pain threatens to consume the bereaved parents who begin to turn their thoughts towards poetic justice and exacting their own revenge even if they also know it will only bring them more suffering. Isolated by their grief, ostracised for the need for truth, and torn apart by their ambivalent emotions towards each other, the trio walk headlong into a spiralling abyss of nihilistic violence and despair, rejecting the idea of a future in which the concept of family continues to exist. Shin’s drama is bleak in the extreme but strangely hopeful in its clear hearted determination to believe in human goodness which just might be the only way back from the brink.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Shin Dong-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival. (scenes from the film not subtitled, interview subtitled in English)