As the fifties were coming to an end, the anti-Rhee establishment/pro-South Korea sentiments were becoming stronger and stronger, something that eventually led to the "April 19 Revolution", a student movement that eventually led to the resigning of President Syngman Rhee. The sentiment of the era was also mirrored in cinema, and Yu Gwan-sun, a student that repeatedly demonstrated against the Japanese rule until her death in the hands of the authorities in 1919, and a symbol of freedom and resistance against Japanese imperialism for Korean people, offered the perfect base.
The film follows her actual story, starting with her last days in Ewha Haktang in Seoul, an all-girls Christian school, which the Japanese storm searching for her and other protestors, on March, 1919. Her first imprisonment and the plead of her school that eventually led to her release, and her subsequent leaving from Seoul to her hometown in Cheonan, take the second part of the story. As the Japanese leadership decided to close all schools due to the increasing anti-Japanese sentiment, a number of students all around the country plotted on their next moves, despite the hard line followed by the authorities, who beat and tortured anyone who seemed suspicious.
Yu and her comrade's efforts eventually led to a rather large demonstration in Aunae Marketplace in Cheonan, where more than 3,000 people gathered on April 1. The authorities opened fire at the crowd, killing 19 people, including her parents, whom the story also presents as heroes. Yu was then imprisoned, but she continued to strive for Korean independence instigating the inmates to protest inside the prison, until her death on September 28, 1920, at 17, due to injuries suffered inside the facility.
Yun Bong-chun directs a movie that focuses on presenting two antithetical axes. The first one is the despicability of the Japanese, who beat and kill young men and women with no remorse, taking the role of the evil in the story from the first scene at the school. The second is the continuous heroism of the Koreans, who fight against Japanese imperialism any way they can, despite the rather harsh and vindictive tactics of the authorities. Yu Gwan-sun experiences the first aspect rather harshly from the beginning, as she is repeatedly beaten and sees the members of her family dying, not stopping, however, her struggle against the Colonialists, even for a moment.
In that regard, the narrative is filled with violence, which is presented in rather evident to the point of shocking (for the era at least) fashion, with the scenes with Yu's torturing and particularly the drowning in the finale, being rather impactful, especially due to her constant yelling. Expectedly, the intense melodrama could not be missing from such a story, although Yun keeps it somewhat restrained, at least for the majority of the film. Lastly, the various demonstrations are impressively portrayed, with the way the Koreans moved as one in their cheering of their country and their freedom, being one of the best visual assets of the movie.
Considering the political circumstances of the year the film was screened (1959), one could easily realize that the story is used as a metaphor for the practices of the Rhee regime, while the ways the demonstrations unfolded in the movie seem almost prophetic, regarding the 1960 student movement.
The quality of the film material is rather bad, so commenting on the visuals would be somewhat unfair to the title; however, the presentation of the era is rather good regarding the costumes and the way the settings are portrayed, elements that add to the originality of the production. Kim Hee-su's editing induces the film with a relatively fast pace through frequent cuts, a tactic that adds to the entertainment the title offers.
Do Kum-bong gives a remarkable performance in the titular role, highlighting her cheerfulness, braveness and resolve almost constantly, and in a rather difficult role that has her being beaten repeatedly. The scenes during the demonstrations, when she is "guiding" the crowds with her voice, and the one in the court with the passionate monologue, are the highlights of her effort.
"Yu Gwan-Sun" does not feature the epicness of films like "Nameless Stars" in terms of production, but remains a rather intriguing movie, that works on both an evident and a metaphoric level, while Do Kum-bong's performance takes care of the entertainment factor. Thus, despite the lack of quality of the film material, remains a very interesting watch.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Yu Gwan-sun" + Full Movie"
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