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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] ‘A Resistance’ captures Yu Gwan-sun’s struggle: The hit film stays true to history in its telling of the final year of the activist’s life

Mar 11,2019
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At left and right are scenes from the recent film, “A Resistance: The Story of Yu Gwan-sun” directed by Jo Min-ho. Protagonist Yu Gwan-sun is played by actor Ko A-sung. At right is Yu’s prison registration card from Seodaemun Prison in western Seoul. [LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]
In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up - or were put in motion by - our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.



Numerous exhibitions and events have been organized recently across the country to mark the centennial of the March 1 Independence Movement.

There are many patriotic independence activists who should be remembered this time of year. Yet one of the most frequently mentioned names - and someone who is often regarded as a face of the country’s collective movement for freedom - is the young female activist Yu Gwan-sun (1902-20). Just in time, a film shedding light on her life after getting locked inside cell No. 8 of Seodaemun Prison in western Seoul 100 years ago hit the theaters across the nation.

There have been several biographic films of Yu in the past, but the latest one titled “A Resistance: The Story of Yu Gwan-sun” directed by Jo Min-ho, delves deeper into her emotions as she spends her days inside the prison along with other inmates.

The film starts off as Yu gets transferred to Seodaemun Prison. Her face is already swollen from getting beaten up for her spirit of resistance at Gongju Prison, where she was first detained after the Manse (“Long live Korean independence!”) Movement, at the Aunae marketplace in Cheonan, her hometown, in South Chungcheong on April 1, 1919.

The camera zooms in on the face of Yu, played by actor Ko A-sung, while the prison guard takes her picture for her prison registration card. One of her eyes is swollen, as well as her cheeks, just as they are in her prison registration card that still exists today and is on display at the Seodaemun Prison.

“When you look at Yu Gwan-sun’s card, you can see that her left cheek is quite puffy,” said Park Hyung-mok, the director of the Seodaemun Prison History Museum.

“We believe that the photograph was taken not long after she was tortured for continuing to resist in jail.”

Seodaemun Prison still stands today as a museum, and since the film mostly deals with Yu’s unending fight against the Japanese, the movie was mostly filmed on location at the prison.

Park says he helped to provide as much historical data as possible so that the director could paint Yu’s life story in prison as realistically as possible.

Indeed, director Jo stayed very true to the historical facts with “A Resistance.” Even for the wooden rice bowls that were used in the prison to serve meals to the inmates, Jo says he referred to historical data to create them in the exactly the same shape and size.

Young Yu gets sentenced to three years at Seodaemun Prison, a lot longer than other inmates who participated in the independence movement. Others got around six months to a year, but because of Yu’s resistance, her jail time was extended.

In the beginning of the film, Yu is taken aback when she is brought to cell No. 8 in the prison. As seen in the film, the cell was less than 10 square meters (107 square feet), but was shared by 24 other women. Because of the cramped space, the female inmates were unable to lie down, let alone sit. The film shows the women walking around in circles to keep their legs from swelling. As they walk in circles, they sing “Arirang,” the song regarded as Korea’s second national anthem, and other inmates in other cells follow suit, angering the Japanese prison guards. The guards find out it was Yu who led the group and drag her out to torture her. This scene in the film accurately portray what really happened, according to records.

Yu did not keep a diary in jail, so every minute detail of what she experienced in the jail and what kinds of conversations she had with other inmates can’t be portrayed exactly. Director Jo says he used his imagination based on historical facts to come up with the dialogue and Yu’s emotional changes.

For example, in one scene, Yu shows signs of regret for having gone to her hometown and spreading the word of the March 1 Independence Movement to local residents, encouraging them to organize their own protests. She sheds tears as she talks to other inmates, blaming herself for the death of 19 people from her hometown who were killed during the rally at the Aunae market, including her parents. There’s no historical record that shows this delicate side of Yu. Despite her young age, Yu has always been portrayed as a powerful and strong patriotic martyr, whose only goal in life was the freedom of her country. But the director says he wanted to show the unknown sides of the 17-year-old Yu who was also scared, hurt, angry, sad, yet determined through the encouragements of the other inmates.

Most of the characters in the film are real, including the pro-Japanese Korean man named Jeong Chun-yeong who worked as an assistant to the Japanese military police. In the film, he works as an interpreter for Japanese officials at Seodaemun Prison and follows orders to torture Yu.

The other female inmates whom Yu frequently converses with in the film, such as the Korean gisaeng (female courtesan) named Kim Hyang-hwa and Yu’s senior from Ewha Hakdang, Korea’s first girls’ school, named Gwon Ae-ra are also real characters who shared cell No. 8 with Yu a century ago. However, the director did create one fictional character, a dabang (old fashioned coffee shop) worker named Lee Ok-i, to help dramatize the story.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]