Three grandmothers seeking the comfort of apologies demonstrate resilience and vulnerability
The title of Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary The Apology (2016) refers to the ongoing struggle of former “comfort women” to receive a formal apology from the Japanese government.
“Comfort women” is a euphemism referring to the girls and women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War Two. While there are no definite figures, it is estimated that more than 200,000 women across Asia were forced into sexual slavery, with fewer than 30 per cent surviving the end of the war (referenced in the 1995 book by Kazuko Watanabe, Trafficking in Women’s Bodies, Then and Now).
It is a shameful page in the history of Japan, one that the Japanese government is still not willing to take full responsibility for. This is despite the discovery, in the early ‘90s, of documents revealing the extent of the army’s involvement in sexual exploitation, after which women began to come forward as victims of the army’s sexual slavery system.
The film documents how men and women have gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday since 1992, demanding a formal apology from the government. A settlement was reached between Japan and South Korea in 2015 but, in the eyes of former “comfort women”, this was not sufficient; instead of apologising to women directly, Japan has apologised to the Korean government and, furthermore, still denies the authorities’ involvement in the forcible enslavement of women.
The documentary follows the parallel lives of three former comfort women, tenderly called “grandmas”. Grandma Gill is a Korean activist in her late-80s who has devoted her life to the struggle, speaking at protests and travelling to Japan to teach university students about this chapter largely ignored in Japanese history textbooks and by youngsters. Abducted in North Korea when she was a teenager, she found herself in South Korea when she was finally released, unable to reconnect with her family. The trauma she has suffered has not been eased by the comfort of her family in the new country.
Grandma Cao is a Chinese survivor who lives in a village where several other women had also been abducted and forced into sexual slavery. Despite this story being widely known in the village, no one has ever spoken of it since the war, and Grandma Cao has kept it for herself for years, only opening up about her past to her adopted daughter during the filming of the documentary.
The third woman, Grandma Adela, lives in the Philippines and, despite being part of a support group for survivors, she has never been able to tell her husband and children about her past, fearing that they would disown her. She eventually gathers the strength to relieve herself of this burden and opens up to her elder son.
By focusing on the present lives of the three grandmothers, Hsiung discloses a terrible story of violence and exploitation, but, above all, she narrates a story of resistance and resilience. The battle the three grandmas are engaged in is a battle over justice and the power of representation. The abuse that Grandma Gill and her fellow activists receive at the hands of young Japanese men is shown in the opening scene of the film when they are ‘welcomed’ with epithets such as “dirty old bitches”, “prostitutes” and “whores”. The question of the voice of the subaltern, to borrow the words of post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak, emerges as a central theme in the film, and the three women are determined to make themselves heard: “I will be talking until the day I die,” says Grandma Gill.
There is a sense of urgency in the ways the three women approach the past – an urgency to get justice and to have their stories told and acknowledged, so as to restore their role in this part of history (“I am not the one who is guilty”) and to prevent the same horrors from happening to other women. By disclosing their stories to the camera and their families, the three grandmothers find the words to speak the unspeakable and break the silence that has surrounded their lives for too long.
Although much as the film focuses on resistance, it also celebrates a resilience that is inextricably linked with the vulnerability of the three characters. American philosopher Judith Butler explains that being vulnerable is being exposed to what is beyond our control, acknowledging the fact that we live in a condition of interdependency with other people and that our lives do not depend upon ourselves alone – as in the case of women forced into sexual slavery. As Butler remarks: “it turns out that this life is not my own, and that this is what makes me a social creature”.
Yet the vulnerability of the human body is not simply a synonym for injurability, it is also, as Moya Lloyd suggests, “the condition of possibility for love, desire, care, hope and life”. The vulnerable body can be brutalised and violated but it can also be welcomed, embraced and loved. The scenes which see Grandma Adela dancing with her fellow survivors, Granma Cao watching television with her sister, and Granma Gill giggling while embracing her son on the bed, are all powerful statements of resilience, beautifully captured by the film.
The grandmothers are not giving up the fight, but the question to the Japanese Parliament remains: “If we all die, who are you going to apologise to?”
See more reviews from this year’s HRWFF London as they are published.
Photo Credit: Icarus Films
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