Ellen Lande
Film director and critic.

They were born as humans, but were never allowed to live a normal human life

The Apology

Tiffany Hsiung

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.

The Apology by Tiffany Hsiung


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.

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