March 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.
International trailer (English subtitles)