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Korean Filmmakers Stand Up for Comfort Women

Oct 17, 2017
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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The Unlikely Commercial Success of One of Korea’s Most Painful Chapters

Whenever a social issue enters the national dialogue in Korea, big screen treatments are never far behind and the acknowledgement of the plight of comfort woman during Korea’s era of Japanese occupation, one of today’s most incendiary items in the political discourse, has come to be especially prominent at the box office over the past two years.

Though the root of the comfort women issue dates back to World War II, it has taken Korea a long time to allow these stories to be openly expressed and for a frank dialogue to begin. Looking at the Korean film scene, which has over the last 20 odd years frequently explored difficult aspects of the country’s contemporary society and past history, even the Colonial Era was something that few filmmakers dared to visit until recently, for fear of opening old wounds or turning off potential viewers.

Save for a few odd titles here and there, that trend towards caution changed about two years ago with the summer releases of LEE Hae-young’s The Silenced and CHOI Dong-hoon’s Assassination, which kick-started a bandwagon that the likes of PARK Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), RYOO Seung-wan (The Battleship Island) and KIM Jee-woon (The Age of Shadows) subsequently jumped on to. 

Suddenly it was OK to revisit this dark chapter of Korean history, and around the same time, even the deepest wounds, the plight of the country’s comfort woman, became an acceptable topic in Korean cinema. However, studios weren’t immediately keen to finance films about comfort women, but the independent scene and even TV producers were already exploring their stories even before the general popularity of Colonial Era narratives in mainstream Korean cinema had begun.

Indie pioneers get the ball rolling

Before the current crop of these sensitive stories, there was AHN Hae-ryong’s documentary My Heart Is Not Broken Yet, which followed the real life figure SONG Sin-do, the first comfort woman to publicly reveal her story in Japan, which she did in 1993. The film, which is narrated by actress MOON So-ri (Oasis, 2002), debuted in Japan in 2007 before premiering in Korea a year later at the Jeonju International Film Festival, where it earned a Special Mention for the JJ-Star Award for Best Korean Film. What makes SONG’s story unique is that she only came forward when she was persuaded by Japanese citizens to do so. My Heart Is Not Broken Yet followed several years later when it was funded by 670 Japanese civilians, a tactic which would later give birth to the most successful story of comfort women to date in Korea, CHO Jung-rae’s indie smash Spirits’ Homecoming.

Director CHO spent ten years trying to bring his story of two young girls who were taken from their families to serve the Japanese military in the early 1940s to the big screen and eventually succeeded following an online publicity campaign (which included a profile in The New York Times) that culminated in a successful crowd-funding campaign. When it was released in February 2016, the film shocked the industry by becoming the most successful narrative independent feature of all time, when it welcomed 3.59 million (USD 24.17 million) spectators. A sequel of sorts, made from extra footage not used in the original, named Spirits’ Homecoming, Unfinished Story, followed in September of this year.

Paving the way for the success of Spirits’ Homecoming were a pair of indie titles that emerged a year earlier in Jeonju and Busan, the narrative feature Snowy Road and the documentary 22 (Her Brave Life), a China-Korea co-production. Originally screened as a two-part TV special on KBS, LEE Na-jeong’s Snowy Road follows two girls, played by KIM Hyang-gi (A Werewolf Boy, 2012) and KIM Sae-ron (The Man from Nowhere, 2010) as girls from the same village with different social backgrounds who wind up at the same comfort women station. Meanwhile, GUO Ke’s 22 (Her Brave Life) features interviews with the last 22 living comfort women of the estimated 200,000 that were taken from China. The film broke records in China earlier this year when it grossed USD 24.52 million, making it the most successful documentary ever released in China.

Commercial Cinema Gives a Voice to Comfort Women

Comfort women films had focused on period-set recreations of their experiences and present-day documentaries interviewing survivors until now, with the release the surprise Chuseok hit I Can Speak. The latest from Cyrano Agency (2010) filmmaker KIM Hyun-seok, the film features new star LEE Je-hoon (The Phantom Detective, 2016) alongside veteran actress NA Moon-hee (Miss Granny, 2014) as a fastidious civil servant and a cantankerous elderly woman who first local horns before unexpectedly drawing close when the latter begs the former to teach her English, in order for her to contact her long-lost brother in the United States.

Prior to the film’s release there was no indication that I Can Speak would be anything more than a light comedy-drama for the holidays but following a press screenings that left its audience in tears and ended to massive applause (almost unheard of for a Korean press screening), the secret was out - NA’s character is based on none other than LEE Yong-soo, a comfort woman who testified before the US House of Representatives in 2007 in congressional hearings that led to the adoption of US House Resolution 121. The document urged the Japanese government to acknowledge the wartime experiences of comfort woman.

Another instance of comfort woman standing up against their oppressors in court rooms that is getting the big screen treatment is Her Story (working title), the latest feature from MIN Kyu-dong (All about My Wife, 2012) which is currently filming. Starring KIM Hae-sook (The Thieves, 2012), KIM Hee-ae (C’est si bon, 2015) and LEE Yoo-young (Yourself and Yours, 2015) among others, the film chronicles the Shimonoseki Trials that took place from 1992-98. The trials featured testimonies from ten former comfort women as they stood up to demand retribution from the Japanese courts. 

Beyond films that exclusively focus on comfort women, we’re also beginning to see these characters crop up in significant supporting roles in different stories spanning an array of genres. This summer for example, LEE Jung-hyun starred as a comfort woman in RYOO Seung-wan’s big-budget The Battleship Island, playing one of the women brought on to the Hashima Island slave labor mining camp to service both the Japanese military and the foreign workers on the island.

With the Korean film industry tackling the issue so openly and exploring it from increasingly varied angles, perhaps it’s an indication that the legacy of comfort woman could change before the last of the survivors of this painful chapter of Korean history pass on.
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