Canada, 2016, 104 min
Military Sexual Slavery
The delicate women are huddled close together. The insults are flying. “Korean whores!” – “Shameless bitches” – “Fuck off!” – “Go home”. The group of women walks on with heads held high. The camera follows them closely. At a distance, young men with Japanese flags loom threateningly. They hurl hateful remarks at the small group of demonstrating grandmothers in their 80s and 90s.
The scene is jarring. The youngsters’ limited, vulgar stock of words contrasts with their well-organized, soldiery appearance. National emblems, headbands, banners and megaphones. Old ladies against brutal thugs in Tokyo – David vs. Goliath in a double sense. These old, dainty ladies are surviving sex slaves. The front line runs between the grandmothers and the Japanese state that legitimized the massive abuse carried out by its armed forces during World War 2. This absurd scene visualizes the nightmare.
Bleak, but uplifting
About 200 000 women and girls from all over Asia were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. They were called comfort women. The film carries the powerful testimony of three survivors. By consistently referring to them as grandmothers, the film stands out from similar documentaries about sexual violence in wartime. The main protagonists are filmed with intimacy, warmth and consideration. We’re invited into the different lives of the grandmothers in China, South Korea and the Philippines. Sweeping, spectacular shots of natural and urban landscapes reinforce our appreciation of how widespread the organized abuse was. The documentary’s scorchingly painful relevance and epic cinematic scope combines to make it a piece of timeless filmmaking.
«The front line runs between the grandmothers and the Japanese state.»
The Canadian director Tiffany Hsiung is behind the camera herself, and her powerful, self-assured visual style creates space in an otherwise claustrophobic story. A Chinese mountain chain at dawn, a spartan rural home, a furrowed face. Everything is filmed reverently, with warmth. The finely tuned perception for light, shadows and composition is seductive. The scene of the tenacious grandmother Cao shuffling about, chopping firewood without regard to the weather, has something of the quality of a Rembrandt painting.
The film devotes an unusually long time to getting us acquainted with the main characters before introducing us to the horrors they’ve been through. This makes me care more. The surviving comfort women in the Philippines dance closely together, laughing. Their joy of life provides a poetic breathing space. A cloud of colourful balloons carried by the Filipino support group is a birthday gift to grandmother Adele. She’s one of the few survivors who found love and started a family. But the others don’t know that she’s one of them; she has too much to lose.
In Seoul, South Korea, the support group marks its 1000th demonstration since 1992 by erecting a statue of a small girl – a comfort woman – outside the Japanese consulate. The reactions aren’t late in coming.
Grandmother Gil departs for Tokyo to demand an apology. The Japanese Prime Minister mocks the survivors. Faithful supporters provide Gil with backing, a comforting arm embracing a weary back. Grandmother Gil is guided past the mob. She’s in a hurry. Time running out is a central dramaturgical theme. Gil spoke out late and now wants to make up for it by producing results. Time is of the essence.
«The director’s powerful, self-assured visual style creates space in an otherwise claustrophobic story.»
Gil tells the Japanese mildly: “I know you don’t appreciate us being here. It’s not easy for a woman like me to come all the way from Korea to Japan. I don’t know what you think about people like us, who’ve been subjected to sexual abuse.” The kindly face is bombarded by the blitz of cameras. A sea of journalists faces her. “I will keep talking till I die. I humbly implore the Japanese government to tell the truth. As soon as we solve the case of the comfort women, this war can finally end.” This is the core of the film. For the three grandmothers the depredations they were subjected to in comfort stations have had fatal consequences. They were prevented, on different levels, from returning to life. The active repression of the truth perhaps prevented them the most.
Grandmother Adele lets her hand run over her husband’s grave – she never dared tell him for fear of rejection. Now she wants to extract the poisonous thorn. Adele calls her son asking for a meeting – without telling why. The strain and discomfort she’s going through as she gets herself ready in front of the mirror is palpable. The story’s intimacy is gripping.
The director abandons the idea of making an ordinary film early on. She devotes six years to letting this story of sexualized violence mature along with the grandmothers’ trust. Her close relationship with the subjects results in a film that has the ability to engage in an extraordinary way. The film takes us on an intense emotional journey. To me it was hard to keep the tears back. A friend who stopped by wondered if the sobbing was part of the audio. The film moves us so strongly that questions about the chronology of events and what happened to whom become insignificant. I’m left dazed. Shocking stories of children born and strangled in captivity. The abduction of 13-14-year-olds from their homes, infertility and a life of shame and lies. And the price of truth that makes its presence felt. The wounds that have been inflicted on the grandmothers can’t heal until the silence has been broken and justice has been done through a direct apology and public recognition. Grandmother Cao reveals the secret to her adopted daughter during the filming; in China, sexual abuse is not a topic. Grandmother Adele confides to her son. The son listens openly, hunched forward. Grandmother Adele’s face is twisted with pain. The sound of their dialogue has been edited out. City streets rush past them. They’re on their way.
Grandmothers’ stories as an asset
The Korean grandmother Gil is touchingly supported by her adoptive son, now a government minister. Their relationship is movingly affectionate. He insists that her UN speech about the atrocities is an honour, and that her demands for official redress can prevent the same thing from happening again. Other scenes show her with engaged students. Next, we see her fighting in the UN. For grandmother Adele, the struggle came to a sudden halt. After her death, her son perceptively concludes: “I wish mom had shared her secret with us earlier. She often sat by herself with a distant, tormented look on her face. What if she hadn’t had to bear the burden all alone.” But towards the end, she wasn’t alone.
«The film moves us so strongly that questions about the chronology of events and what happened to whom become insignificant»
The film employs meta techniques. Through video recordings the grandmothers get to know each other. Young people from abroad support the grandmothers via video greetings. This carries the film into the present. The grandmothers no longer stand alone. The truth accelerates.