Kindred spirits – A bestselling film on a subject shunned by most producers strikes a chord
Mar 26th 2016 Economist
“I heard we are all going to a shoe factory,” says one of the terrified teenage girls in the film hopefully, huddled on the floor of a train bound for north-eastern China in 1943. In pastel linen dresses, and recently taken from their homes by soldiers of the Japanese imperial army, the captive girls will soon be beaten and raped repeatedly in a “comfort station”, one of the hundreds of military brothels that were set up to cater to soldiers in Japanese-occupied territory during the second world war.
Up to 200,000 women, mainly Korean and Chinese, but also including many South-East Asians and a few Dutch and Australians, were enslaved. It remains a source of deep resentment for South Korea, and has long been at the heart of its troubled relations with Japan. There the shrill voices of historical revisionists, who dispute that women were coerced—there were, after all, also volunteers from Japan and elsewhere—have grown louder in recent years. And then not all South Koreans acknowledge that much of the recruitment was carried out by Korean community leaders and unscrupulous operators.
“Spirits’ Homecoming” is a moving portrayal of these girls’ tragic and sometimes short lives, based on testimony from survivors (44 Korean “comfort women” remain alive today). It is set against glorious (South) Korean countryside, and overlaid with the country’s best-loved folk songs. It is true that most of the Japanese soldiers are depicted as brutes, as with nearly all South Korean films about Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea. But some Japanese are treated as victims too. Gentle Tanaka comes to the brothel, but he does not touch Jung-min, the film’s battered 14-year-old protagonist. Instead he offers kind words and eventually a map to help her escape.
South Korean blockbusters typically cast Koreans with jarringly bad accents in Japanese villains’ roles. Mr Cho has used native Japanese speakers, among them zainichi, ethnic-Korean Japanese. Right-wing groups in Japan have tried to smear such actors online. The film has had over 3m viewers since it opened a month ago, a remarkable success for an independent feature film in South Korea. Having taken 14 years to make, it has been spurned by mainstream production houses and distributors because of its difficult subject matter. In the end its director, Cho Jung-rae, relied on the contributions of over 75,000 individuals for about half of his funding, including from many Japanese.
A deal struck in December between the governments of South Korea and Japan to make amends to Korean women forced into prostitution has revived interest in their plight. For others, it is all too close to the bone still. Hong Ji-yea, an office worker, says she bought a ticket to support the film but was “not brave enough” to watch it. A friend who teaches young army officers gave hers and others’ tickets to her students. Ms Hong says that she hopes they might reflect on how difficult it is to stay human in war.