Cho Min-ho gives us a measured exploration of the Korean independence protests of the 20s that thoroughly engages with its focus on one women and her plight.
Small festivals are great for unexpected gems and at KOFFIA, (the Korean Film Festival in Australia), with only one film per session, you take what you can get. A Resistance could have been a delight or a disappointment.
Gwan-sun (Ko A-sung) is prisoner 371 and her reputation as defiant precedes her. Along with her family, she participated in street protests against Japanese rule, asking for independence for Korea. The joyful protest, where they shouted “Mansae!” (loosely translated as Hurrah!) ended in gun fire, the deaths of her parents and multiple arrests. Most other protesters got 6-12 months and her sentence of three years marked her as a troublemaker.
Her cell is inhabited by 15-20 women in a room so small that they can’t all sleep at once and must constantly shuffle in a circle to sustain their circulation. Gwan-sun is from a higher class family, something that at first sets her apart from her cell-mates but not for long. She is destined to be a target for her Japanese captors as she refuses to back down. The perpetrators represent various archetypes; the angry but ineffectual general, his sadistic second-in-charge and, most significantly, a Korean who is obsequiously grateful for the chance of a good job.
The black and white cinematography sets the story apart, positioning it clearly in the past whilst also enhancing every detail and texture. There are occasional transitions to colour and in the final frame we understand the significance. Ko is excellent and one of the strengths of the film is the depth of diversity of characterisation of the female prisoners. We feel we know them, with all their weaknesses and choices.
There is a lot of tragedy in this story. Gwan-sun is extraordinary in her resilience but she is terribly abused and the camera is unflinching in its stare. Based on a real person, in her we see the price of resistance and her journey from privileged idealist to warrior. It is a sobering tale, particularly considering that Korean independence was still 30 years away.
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