Now/here, the inside and outside of the 'comfort women'1 films, Part 2 - It is possible to imagine differently

Posts Son Hee-jungYonsei University Institute of Gender Studies

  • Created at2019.03.16
  • Updated at2021.11.24

It is possible to imagine differently

This article is a summary and revision of 「The Reconstruction of Gender Politics and Popularity of Memory: Focusing on the Public Narratives of 'Comfort Women'」 in 『Feminism Reboot』 (2017) at the request of the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIJMSS).


Another reenactment of 'comfort women': The case of <Snowy Road>

<Snowy Road> has been frequently compared to <Spirits' Homecoming> for its 'repetition and difference'. Both films begin with the stories of girls being taken to comfort stations, and feature friendships between the girls, death and survival, and what happens when they reach their old age. These two films share such similar narrative structures as both are based on testimony. However, the two films present differing reenactments of the same testimony.

Unlike <Spirits' Homecoming>, <Snowy Road> does not throw the body of a naked, battered woman plainly in front of us. Instead, the movie replaces it with daily routines and endurance among women who had no choice but to live everyday as a mere 'body'. For example, while <Spirits' Homecoming> conveys the screams of a 'virgin' being raped, <Snowy Road> captures the abjection associated with the daily task of the condom laundry and the lamentation arising from such a routine. <Snowy Road> refrains from depicting women merely as the image of a 'violated body.' That is, even when the main character considers herself as 'a crushed animal', the camera refuses to treat her as one. Turning violence into a spectacle is not the only way to describe a victims' pain. Instead, taking a detour so as not to make violence a form of spectacle can be a way to prevent objectifying and fetishizing the victims again. As director Michael Haneke mentioned, the reenactment of violence should not be about violence itself, but about suffering.

In this sense, it is extremely impressive how <Snowy Road> carefully elaborates the element of 'women’s reading and writing'. Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron) finds a reason to live by teaching Jong-bun (Kim Hyang-gi) how to read and write, while for Jong-bun, learning to read and write gives her the motivation to live. One reviewer criticized this for being a representation of class hierarchy distinguishing those who can teach from those who must learn. However, one cannot interpret it only so simply by considering the ultimate meanings entailed in the acts of 'teaching' and 'learning', because for Yeong-ae, 'teaching' is not a means to assert her superiority, but instead her way of regaining the reason of her existence. Jong-bun, who is well aware of this, rather gives Yeong-ae an 'opportunity to teach how to write'. It is Jong-bun who hands a book over to Yeong-ae to ask Yeong-ae to teach Jong-bun how to read. Jong-bun yells, "Don't flatter yourself. You and I are no different!" which reveals that sexual slavery applied to all people under colonization regardless of hierarchy.

Later on, knowing how to read and write bears another meaning for Jong-bun. Learning to read and write enables her to be finally re-written as a citizen in this nation’s system. Thanks to Young-ae, she reads 『A Little Princess』, returns home, registers herself in the national system under the name 'Kang Yeong-ae', reads a notice sent by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, and writes a letter to her first love. For Jong-bun, "to write" also means that she is no longer an 'invisible person' in this society, but instead someone who becomes a 'registered person'. She becomes someone who can tell her own stories and make records, and this is precisely how she becomes a person who can ‘be heard' and ' be read'.


Movie <Snowy Road> (2017)


The power of testimony: “I Can Speak”

Why do we imagine that "screaming and crying" is the only way of conveying the pain experienced by the 'comfort women' victims? After all, no matter what form the pain was, the 'comfort women' victims were able to testify and record the damage because they spoke about their own history in their own terms.

What is noteworthy in <Spirits' Homecoming> is the 'complete absence of the state', or more precisely, the 'complete absence of the system'. Here, 'absence' means that the movie fails to reenact it. The notions of Japan and Joseon/South Korea, which had thus became absent, are instead replaced with the personified stereotypes of the ‘malignant Japanese' and 'incompetent Joseon/South Korean men.' Older brothers fail to save their younger siblings while fathers fail to protect their daughters, and this incompetence continues to this day. Consequently, the women become insane, pass away, or become mediums who can finally speak only when possessed by spirits. This pattern replicates itself while reflecting the epistemology of the patriarchal society in which the politics is imagined, reenacted, and explained only within the frame of family romance.

Of course, the absence of the state directly reflects the reality of this society, since not only the Japanese government but also the South Korean government are failing to address the 'comfort women' issue with any sense of responsibility. For this reason, the movie's reliance on the cultural convention called 'gut' (exorcism) to resolve the 'comfort women' issue seems convincing and thereby attractive to the public. At this point, Eun-kyung, the medium who leads the spirit of Jung-min (Kang Ha-na) for the 'homecoming', reveals that the history of sexual violence experienced by the ‘comfort women’ does not only remain as the history of violence perpetrated by Japanese imperialism, but also continues to this day as the universal violence of the patriarchal system. This explains why portraying the process of Eun-kyung becoming a medium was important. After experiencing sexual assault and witnessing her assailant killing her father, Eun-kyung becomes a medium, the one who sees what we do not see, who transcends the language of reason, and exists in the crevice of the system.

Indeed, were the departed friends and the memories of pain represented through them separate from the survivors and thus could only be conjured up through a medium? Young-ok’s (Son Sook) statement, "My body may have returned home, but my heart remained there," is a confession that the spirits of the dead always accompanied the survivors' lives. Then, why should there be a medium? Let us now turn back to <Snowy Road>. The surviving 'Grandmother Jong-bun' (Kim Yeong-ok) who has to live on 'despite' everything meets and talks every day with the spirit of the girl Yeong-ae who never returned home. Jong-bun lives under the name of Yeong-ae after returning home. This is a strategy to portray Jong-bun as 'a person who is registered in the national system,' while simultaneously illustrating that for her the past is continuing as that of 'a person's' rather than 'a ghost's'.

In this sense, it is important to remember that it was not the 'repose of souls' that broke the long silence and let the 'comfort women' victims' voices be heard in this society. Instead, it was the courage and determination of the surviving ‘comfort women’ victims who declared 'to live on', and the vibrant movements that stood by them. One scene in <Spirits' Homecoming> that is particularly touching was the part where the aged Young-ok visits the community service center to report the damage of 'Japanese military sexual slavery' inflicted on her. Young-ok, who initially hesitates to register a report, overhears a staff member at the community service center saying, "What crazy person would make the report?" She then turns back to the staff and shouts, "I'm that crazy lady!" This scene illustrates the moment when the system transforms nature itself by incorporating the voice of the 'crazy lady' in it.

This is a point where <I Can Speak> jumps in as a movie that boldly (!) omits the reenactment of the 'girlhood' of the 'comfort women’ victims and instead presents narratives through the figure of a “grandmother". That is, <I Can Speak> demonstrates new possibilities for the 'comfort women' reenactment by giving a new life to the significance of the moment where the grandmother in <Spirits' Homecoming> declares "I’m that crazy lady" and also to the meaning of the 'actions of speaking, writing, and recording' imagined and reenacted in <Snowy Road>.

On the surface, the movie shows a comedy featuring the friendship between Grandmother Ok-boon (Na Moon-hee), rather known as a "person who frequently files civil complaints", and Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon), a by-the-book ninth-grade civil servant. However, what the movie actually focuses on is the 2007 public hearing for the U.S. House of Representatives’ resolution demanding Japan’s apology for 'Japanese military sexual slavery' (HR121). Ok-boon, who frequently files civil complaints, needed to learn English to make a public testimony at the hearing. She subsequently takes Min-jae as her English teacher, after which a series of events and mishaps unravel. In other words, the 'comfort woman' victim's behavior of telling her story itself becomes the theme, the energy, the event, and the subject that drive the movie. Notably, the movie may be considered the best-titled movie in South Korean film history, as the title <I Can Speak> accurately reflects not only its plot but also its theme.

Movie <I Can Speak> (2017)


The birth of 'Herstorian' and the remaining challenges

<Herstory>, which depicts a six-year 'comfort women' trial3 process that took place from 1992 to 1998, also intended to vividly capture the theme of the movie through its title. The title credit for this movie begins with <History>. The movie then erases 'His' and replaces it with 'Her', revealing its will to correct the male-centered narration of history and thereby re-write the history with a focus on women. In other words, the movie aims to show how the stories built up in women's lives become 'history'.

As declared in its title credits, this movie strived to approach the subject of 'comfort women' from the women's perspective and through feministic narration-image construction more than any other films on 'comfort women'. In doing so, the movie intentionally avoided recreating rape as a spectacle, focused on women's independence, and paid attention to building relationships between the women characters. Such conscious efforts probably prompted the movie to devote much of its parts to court testimony scenes. As can be confirmed in the several interviews with its director Min Kyu-dong, <Herstory> carefully takes into account what feministic critics have been considering thus far in terms of reenacting 'comfort women' in order to build up the movie’s narratives and images. In other words, this movie resembled the form of the 'textbook'. Nevertheless, textbooks do not always provide the right answer, and nor are they always 'good work'. Unfortunately, <Herstory> remained within the narrative-image painted by the feminist criticisms (which were probably reaching its limits themselves already).

In line with this, one question emerges: "Why is the reenactment of the 'comfort women' victims still trapped in the girl-grandmother dichotomy?" To illustrate, the most impressive element about the movie <Snowy Road> was the mature adult role taken up by Jong-bun, which was rarely witnessed in South Korean films. In response to this assessment, the screenwriter of <Snowy Road> Yoo Bo-ra replied:

“The story I initially wished to tell when plotting <Snowy Road> was the time when the surviving women who returned home reached their 30s and 40s. However, the condition was not favorable to this plot, so the movie ended up telling the story of the girl-grandmother. If I had just imagined the 'grandmother' character from the outset, then I might have imagined a character that was hurt or full of anger. Nonetheless, after researching, contemplating, and imagining the lives they led, I came to create a character with an enriched context like Jong-bun."

This may be the problem of 'imagination', as imagination involves creating a 'new story' through 'undiscovered stories' that emerge after prolonged contemplation and introspection, rather than through familiar stories that are readily available. This 'new story' would offer another perspective that constitutes history. Then, another question suddenly comes to mind: What was the “condition that was not favorable" to reenacting the 'comfort women' victims in their 30s-40s? Perhaps the answer to that is the constraint imposed by South Korean society.

<Herstory> became extremely interesting when it met with women audiences. After the surge of interest in feminism in 2015, young female audiences, tired of the male-centered South Korean films, were seeking fresh films. The emergence of the <Miss Baek> fandom 'Miss Baek Lover' and the <Herstory> fandom 'Herstorian' in 2018 was in line with this quest. Herstorians initiated audience campaigns through group viewing, ticket purchases, etc. which also led to the creation of a fandom for actress Kim Hee-ae. The fans were enthusiastic about Moon Jeong-suk (Kim Hee-ae), a 'powerhouse female hero' while remaining highly conscious about the violence of patriarchy. Can the emergence of these new audiences lead to the possibility of new realms of the imagination? Inside the new chapter that these audiences create, what updates should and can the public narratives on 'comfort women' accomplish? Perhaps the answer to that question is always in the process of a formation, which may never be completed, because there is no final destination for the journey of the imagination.

Movie <Herstory> (2018)

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Writer Son Hee-jung

Yonsei University Institute of Gender Studies, Researcher.