Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Yu Gwan-sun, you'd be so much prettier if you smiled more

I came across these photos on Facebook which show a "reconstructed" version of teenage independence activist Yu Gwan-sun, who died 100 years ago (on September 28, 1920) after serving time in Seodaemun Prison for her participation in the Samil protests. 

The photos are also posted in this article, which says that the netizen who posted the photos said, "Every time I looked at the photo of Yu Gwan-sun, I felt sorry for her with her face swollen from torture. She was 17 years old (at the time), which is only 4 years older than my child, but there's only that photo of her suffering face” so "I made a picture of her ‘living face’ with the photo editing app FaceApp.” [If this is just an ad campaign for that app, nicely done!] The person went on to say that they hoped the smiling image would end up the 100,000 won bill, if there ever is one. Personally, I think that as long as we're going to put fake photos to money, the obvious choice would be Dangun's skeleton, which was 'discovered' in North Korea years ago. 

The photos are based on these, taken when Yu was arrested in 1919.

There are so many problems with these disrespectful, 'altered' photos of Yu Gwan-sun it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, considering no photo of Yu's teeth exists, her smile has been simply created out of thin air. And while imposing current beauty standards on a figure from the past is something that stands to be criticized, this is waved away by saying that her face was swollen from being beaten, so it's actually recreating her 'true' self - one that happens to look exactly like every person who has ever appeared in a Korean government or corporate propaganda piece public service announcement

The aforementioned article even includes a 3D restoration of her face made in 2012 by ‘experts’ who claimed her face was swollen due to torture. The article includes some photos of Yu released last year from her days at Ehwa Hakdang, but while it includes this close up of her when she was younger (it suggests it was taken in 1915 or 1916)... does not include a close up of this photo of her from 1917 or 1918.

This article, however, does include a close-up of her, making it clear that by her later teens her face had grown quite a bit rounder. 

The thing is, though, that another photo of Yu from her Ehwa days has been available for decades (here it is in a 1947 Donga Ilbo article), and it's clear her face isn't thin in this photo either.

 (Photo from here.)

I'd guess that this psuedo-history myth of her face being round because she was tortured exists (with 'experts' creating computer models to support it while obviously hoping no one bothers to look at widely-available photos) because it fits well with the narrative of victimization that invariably colours popular (and academic) representations of the colonial period. (This isn't to say that she wasn't tortured during her imprisonment; I'd imagine she was, though tales of her body being mutilated by the Japanese were debunked by the missionary who dressed her body for burial, as noted in Don Clark's Living Dangerously in Korea.)

 I've often wondered why Yu became a symbol of the Samil movement. She's mentioned in newspapers soon after liberation, so her story was clearly kept alive during the colonial period. I'd guess that being a teenage girl who died young had much to do with it - victimized young women are central to many narratives of abuse by foreign powers in Korea. As I noted in this post, Yu, Hyo-sun and Mi-seon, and the comfort women have long served as 'victimized innocents' who symbolize Korea's purity despoiled by outsiders, be they Japanese or American.

Around ten years ago Seodaemun Prison Museum was refurbished and the screaming animated mannikins were removed and replaced with, in one room, walls filled with arrest cards. Unfortunately, the cards are not rendered in Hangeul or explained in any way, so it's just an overwhelming mass of faces of arrested people. Still, the images are memorable, and make clear that there were plenty of other young women who were arrested who could have been memorialized. 

I wonder who these women were, what there stories were, and what became of them. None of them look very happy, which is what is to be expected when you're arrested by those enforcing a police state. What bothers me about the photo alteration of Yu's face is that it ignores this context - the very thing that made her a national symbol - and it feels like she's being told, "You know, you'd look prettier if you smiled more."

But hey, I guess she'll sell more chicken flashing those perfect, pearly whites.