During World War II, invading Japanese soldiers would kidnap young women across Asia – in Korea, China, and the Philippines – and enslave them into forced prostitution. The imprisonment and sexual exploitation of these woman – referred to as ‘comfort women’ – has never been apologised for or even acknowledged by a post-war Japanese government. In this powerful and oftentimes upsetting documentary directed by Tiffany Hsiung, three elderly women relive their experiences as prisoners of the Japanese while waiting for an apology; an apology that seems unlikely to come in the time they have left.
The Apology takes on an important subject matter: the fight for reparations for war-time sexual torture and the Japanese government’s continued denial that such torture, which is widely documented by testimony and evidence, ever happened. In developing this documentary, writer/director Hsiung smartly gives it a personal dimension. Rather develop a relatively dry factual account, her film is primarily composed of interviews with three former comfort women – all now in their mid-80s. They are all referred to as ‘Grandma’ by those who care for them.
The lion’s share of the attention is focused on Grandma Gil, a Korea woman who acts as a figurehead for the South Korean protest movement. That movement campaigns for a formal apology and sends an increasingly frail Gil internationally to educate school children and speak with government bodies to help pressure Japan to admit its past. Also featured in other parts of the film are Adela, a Filipina woman whose experiences have left her both regretful and quietly ashamed. Finally, Grandma Cao is a nearly deaf and surprisingly pragmatic woman living in rural China. She is often the film’s most entertaining element, but also provides its bleakest and most unsettling moments.
Technically, the film is of a general documentary standard. Shot on hand-held video over a period of several years, it is refreshing to see Hsiung abandon any effort to keep herself an invisible presence as she regularly turns up on screen to talk to the women, and her own reactions enrich the film considerably. It becomes a more personal production as a result, and in dealing with such a difficult subject matter the personal approach feels like a wise one. It is not objective and some scenes – particularly those in the now decrepit ‘comfort stations’ – feel more than a little manipulative. It is a trade off worth making. While not becoming a fully objective historical document, the documentary does a tremendous job of leading its audience to immerse themselves of the emotion of the past.
While perhaps a little too long, The Apology is an important and powerful reminder of perhaps World War II’s final injustice. It tells an important story, allows the most important protagonists to tell it, and acts as a strong and permanent record of the crimes in which the Japanese military engaged – and which today’s Japanese government still fails to acknowledge.
The Apology is available on DVD from Icarus Films.