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Tuesday, April 18, 2000


Documenting an unforgivable past

A fool who persists in his folly will become wise, claims William Blake. If Blake is right, the historical revisionists of various stripes, from the Holocaust deniers to the Nanjing Massacre apologists, must be among the wisest of men (few women are afflicted with the more virulent strains of revisionism).

Particularly wise are the revisionists who try to either dismiss or downplay the existence of the so-called comfort women from Korea and other subject states of the Japanese empire, who were sold into sexual slavery for the "comfort" of the Japanese military in World War II. Most pernicious are those who claim that most comfort women were essentially "volunteers" who knew what they were in for -- and thus deserved what they got.

In a trilogy of documentaries, beginning with "Nanum no Ie" in 1995, South Korean director Byu Young Joo has investigated the lives of former comfort women, focusing on South Korean women who have been struggling for more than a decade to win redress from the Japanese government. Filming these women as they protest, organize and live together in a communal house in Seoul, Byu has refuted the revisionists with, not the primary sources of the historian, but the living fact of her subjects' anger, pain and relentless memories.

This approach may not satisfy literalists who demand the kind of documentary evidence that in any case no longer exists, but is convincing to those who are willing to admit the emotional truths of Byu's testimonies and images -- truths that owe little or nothing to cinematic manipulation, everything to the sincerity and honesty of those in front of the camera, as well as the skills and compassion of those behind it.

One of the truths Byu reveals in her third installment, "Ikizukai (My Own Breathing)," is that time is running out for many of these women -- even for ones who have kept their war-time experiences hidden for decades and who are bringing them out into the open. They are speaking out, not in the fading hope of a compensation check from the Japanese government, but from an undeniable agony that can no longer be contained.

Unfortunately, the weekly protests of the comfort women and their supporters in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul have become as ritualized as a kabuki play. The protesters' stubborn conviction is praiseworthy -- but few delude themselves that they are going to change the minds of Japanese officials anytime soon (if ever).

Instead of retreading this by now familiar ground, Byu takes "Ikizukai" in a new, powerfully revealing direction. While bringing us up to date on the lives and -- with increasing frequency -- deaths of the former comfort women we met in the first two installments, she shifts her focus to one of her subjects, the 72-year-old Yi Yong Soo, who goes out on her own to record the testimonies of her sisters in slavery. Byu, who began filming her first installment seven years ago, has established a relationship of trust with Yi and other former comfort women that enables her to disappear behind the camera -- and capture moments of unforced revelation.

She follows Yi as she ventures out to the Korean countryside and beyond. One of Byu's most articulate interviewees is Kim Yoon Sim, who wrote a book about her wartime experiences that won a Korean literary prize. She relates these experiences to Yi as she operates the sewing machine by which she now makes her living, after two failed marriages and raising a deaf daughter alone. She remembers so her daughter -- and young women like her -- will never forget.

Another interviewee is Kim Boon Sun, a 78-year-old woman who was taken from her mountain village as a teenager and sent to a miliary brothel in Taiwan. Returning to Korea after the war, she hid her past from her family and never married. Now, after more than 60 years, she returns to her village and meets a village woman of her generation who knew her family but has forgotten Kim. Together they weep, lamenting the passage of time, the waste of years.

But though their wartime ordeals may have marked them for life (many could never trust men again), these and other former comfort women have also gained a rare insight into the importance and power of truth, however long delayed. In "Ikizukai" their insight is also ours -- if we are willing to accept it.

"Ikizukai," "Nanum no Ie" and "Nanum no Ie II" are all playing at Box Higashi Nakano. Dialogue in Korean with Japanese subtitles.

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