With the signing of the Comfort Women “deal” between Japan and South Korea in December 2015 – a deal signed without consulting the victims themselves – the issue of the wartime sex slaves once again came to the fore. While the inter-governmental negotiators were reaching the final stages of their deal-making, Cho Jungrae’s long-term project was also readying itself for release. Spirits’ Homecoming, a movie exploring the experiences of those girls and young women abducted into sexual slavery for the Japanese armies during the Pacific War, had been a long fourteen years in the making, but its time had finally come.
The issue is an extremely delicate subject, of course for the victims themselves, but also in terms of the international relations between Japan and Korea (and indeed other countries whose citizens were similarly abducted) and, less obviously, as a domestic social issue within Korea itself. As is well known, it was not until 1991 that Kim Hak-sun came forward with her testimony, which then encouraged others to come forward.
The courage taken for that first victim to come forward is echoed with a lightness of touch in a scene in Spirits’ Homecoming in which one former comfort woman goes to the local government office to register as a victim, only to hear disparaging comments made by the clerical staff in the office. This is a scene in which veteran stage actress Son Sook shows her experience: first hesitating to come forward, then stung by the unfeeling comment she finally approaches the desk.
In bringing the project to fruition two key challenges must have faced the director. First, how to persuade investors to come up with the money to back the movie when the prospect of financial return was so uncertain? This latter challenge was addressed though crowdfunding: some 75,000 individual donors are each listed in the credits at the end of the movie. Further, all the cast and crew donated their talents without payment, somehow persuaded that the cause of the Comfort Women was one important enough to highlight in this way. But, thanks to the unorthodox funding model, the director and his crew lived a hand-to-mouth existence, shooting scenes as and when they had the cash to do so – hence the length of time taken to complete the project.
The second major challenge was how to create a plot that is not so horrendously, unremittingly gruesome that audiences wouldn’t be scared off. The story follows one young girl, wonderfully played the inexperienced actress Kang Hana, as she is abducted from her rural family by Japanese soldiers. She joins other young women on along journey whose destination is to them unknown, and we follow the friendships they build in adversity and witness of their horrific experiences. As Kang filmed her scenes in the comfort station she at least had the company of her mother, who played the part of the madam looking after all the girls.
For the girls in this movie, their abduction occurred towards the end of the Second World War, and if they could survive the physical ordeal of their fate (which included arbitrary executions by their captors) there was the possibility of rescue when the Japanese were defeated. We meet one of the survivors in more modern times in scenes interwoven with the wartime footage, and follow her experiences as she tries to come to terms with her past and, through the offices of her shaman friend, aims to resolve some of the issues relating to those who were less fortunate and died in the war.
Because of their early deaths, and their unbearable han, the spirits of the deceased comfort women are earthbound and they need a gut to release them to the next world. And in this movie, by extension, the spirits of the girls are somehow chained to the location where they passed away, and it is through the gut that the spirits can return home to their families in Korea to find their rest. The shaman ritual towards the end of the movie is an incredibly moving scene, intercut as it is with the finals hours of the girls’ wartime ordeal, and giving us into the bargain a little reveal.
As the director and actors explained in two discussion sessions in London (after the LEAFF screening and later at SOAS), the movie is not intended to be anti-Japanese. It is intended to be anti-war and pro women’s rights. In this way it is in sympathy with the objectives of the comfort women campaigners as articulated in the documentaries shown at Sheffield last year. The comfort women issue has been with us for so long that it is sad that a film such as Spirits’ Homecoming still needs to be made. But as Son Sook explained at the SOAS Q&A, she was surprised that “so many people didn’t believe that girls that young were abducted.” It is still an issue that needs airing, and Spirits’ Homecoming does it delicately, movingly and with surprisingly little anger.
Spirits’ Homecoming screened at the Regent Street Cinema on 27 October 2016 as part of the London East Asia Film Festival.
Cho Jungrae (조정래) Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, 2016)