It’s one thing for Jo Min-ho to direct a steaming pile of you-know-what like “A Million” and call it a “thriller.” But when you take a tale of Yu Gwan-sun -- one of the most-recognized independence fighters in Korea, yet whose story has not appeared in many films -- and butcher it like this, it is just unforgiveable.
“A Resistance,” the movie about the heroic 16-year-old who died while fighting against Japan’s colonization of Korea, was one that had so much potential and one that I prayed would be great. Yet, Jo’s historical drama turned out to be a big letdown.
“A Resistance” (Lotte Entertainment)
The film looks at roughly a year and a half before Yu’s death in 1920, beginning immediately after the iconic March 1 Independence Movement of 1919. During the movement, Koreans under Japanese rule took to the streets in a nonviolent protest yelling “Mansae!” for independence of Korea -- the word “mansae” is used in celebration or blessing for something.
A leading figure in the movement, Yu (Go Ah-sung) is sentenced to three years in prison and sent to the infamous Keijo Prison, now known as Seodaemun Prison. Being confined to a tiny cell with dozens of inmates does not hold back Yu, her unconquerable spirit seeping out from behind the locked doors.
At the premiere of “A Resistance,” Go was in tears saying that she felt enormous pressure and fear of playing Yu, which shows in the respect she pays in her performance. I just wish the director had paid that same respect.
On paper, “A Resistance” looks well on its way to becoming a great drama: an inspiring story and a standout feminist movie. It has inspiring real-life women who were not only discriminated against by Japan, but also the society that shunned them for their gender, their occupation and what they strived to do. It could have delivered an important message for a society that still harbors prejudices against women.
That’s what it could have done.
Hammering home a message hardly ever works in the film medium, and it goes from the messages being a bit on the nose to practically screaming it head-on. Lines that are supposed to make you think are so obvious they fail to hold any poignancy.
“Why say ‘What if you were a man?’ Even a woman can do it,” may be a great message, but having it said directly by one of the characters in unnatural dialogue doesn’t work so well. Subtlety is a concept that seems completely lost here.
While this is a story based on real events, it is still a movie. Just because you tell a story about an admirable person does not mean the audience is automatically blown away by it. You have to have a convincing narrative and characters.
That is the biggest problem: The characters are not impressive. It’s not like Jo had nothing to work on, as many of the characters in cell No. 8 were real female independence fighters.
Take for example Kim Hyang-hwa, a “gisaeng,” or courtesan, who led other gisaeng to participate in the March 1 movement. She was posthumously awarded a presidential medal for her dedication to the country.
But Kim’s character here leaves very little impression, other than that of a “nice lady whose heart was in the right place.” An elderly woman who holds a grudge against Yu for the death of her son killed during the protest is so obviously there only to see the light later in the film.
The prison scenes are differentiated from the flashback scenes by shooting only the former in black-and-white. The director said this was done to depict even the smallest emotions, and not to be too graphic about the torture scenes, leaving it to the imagination of the audience.
This is confusing in all sorts of ways. First of all, the film is not all that graphic in the first place. Yu looks incredibly good for someone who has been through hell, and so does the rest of the cast. Second, if you wanted to leave the torture scenes to the viewers’ imagination, why would you zoom in when they are about to pull the fingernails out of Yu’s fingers?
Even the supposed villain makes no sense. The film hints at a story arc of a Korean who is working desperately to be accepted by the Japanese by being in the forefront of torturing his compatriots. It goes nowhere.
The rest of the Japanese baddies are not worth mentioning, except that their Japanese was so bad it was annoying.
Another problem with the black-and-white formula is that it forces viewers to compare the movie to far-better films, like “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” that also depicted a story of an independence fighter.
The Lee Jun-ik film in 2016 also started off in prison and jumped back and forth between the past and present, but it was subtle, had a strong narrative and likeable characters. I didn’t just like Dong-ju because of his history. He was actually a likeable character in the film, which made his inevitable demise all the more tragic.
In addition, it introduced viewers to far lesser-known independence fighter Song Mong-gyu, the poet’s cousin whose movie portrayal was charming and relatable. This is what “A Resistance” could have done with its minor characters.
The film does have elevating moments thanks to the power of acting and the sheer weight of the actual story. One of the few scenes I liked in the film was the opening scene, in which Yu staggers off a carriage and into the prison. It was gritty, heartless, yet somehow conveyed her character: noble, unyielding, even scrappy.
Another was the “mansae” protest from within the cells, the intent of which was pretty obvious but had so much heart that it was moving.
Despite the less-then-impressive characters, I really think the actors did their best. It is a very, very badly directed film by someone who deserved neither the cast nor the subject matter.
About the only good it did was that it motivated me to look up the actual stories of the heroes depicted in the film.
“A Resistance” opens on Feb. 27.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)