There has recently been a trend in South Korea’s film industry – films set in Korea during Japanese rule are being released, bringing the Korean people’s attention to an issue that is closely related to its citizens. It brings to light Japan’s past war crimes and the international neglect of the victims through a big screen.
South Korean director Cho Jung-rae became determined to share the stories of victims of Japanese rule in Korea when he visited the ‘Sharing House,’ a shelter for former comfort women, in 2002. At the ‘Sharing House’ Cho met several former comfort women. “Comfort woman” is the term used to describe women who were forcefully taken into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army in WWII. Testimonies of the victims contained recounts of electrical torture, rape, and beatings; scars often marked their bodies. After reading a book containing these testimonies, Cho began to write a script for the film, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향).
The film begins as a fourteen-year old girl by the name of Jung-min is forcefully taken from her home by the Japanese Army. Joining a larger group of young girls, Jung-min is taken to a Japanese comfort station – where victims were repeatedly raped. Upon reaching the comfort station, many of the young women succumb to brutal rape and torture. Spirits’ Homecoming is based off of the true story of a victim, Jang Il-chun, who was abducted from her home in 1943 and lost her youth to a life of sexual slavery and cruelty. The film reveals the pain of the victims and seeks to bring home those who never made it back home.
Dong-ju: The Portrait of A Poet is a biographical film that revolves around Yun Dong-ju and his best companion, Song Mong-kyu, who were both victims and resisters of the Japanese rule. The film follows the short, but commendable youth of Yun Dong-ju, who is a well-known resistance poet in South Korea. Director Lee Jun-ik attempts to unravel the lives of the two companions and the decisions that they made.
By setting the film entirely in black and white, Lee was not only able to cut production costs, but he was also able to bring the widely recognized figure of Yun Dong-ju in a black and white photograph onto the big screen. Lee believed that the black and white photo reflected the most shining youth of the poet’s life in the darkest time.
Song Mong-kyu was Yun Dong-ju’s lesser-known cousin. The two differed in their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The film depicts how Song Mong-kyu was always ahead of Yun Dong-ju. While becoming a poet was a dream of Yun’s, Song’s work had already been selected for an annual spring literary contest. At only nineteen years old, Song joined a group under Kim Koo (leader of the Korean independence movement) located in Nanjing, China. Because of Song’s daring acts, he made Yun feel inferior at times. However, Song also strengthened Yun’s heart by encouraging him to continue writing poetry. In fact, it was Song Mong-kyu who sparked the fire of resistance in Yun Dong-ju.
Both were born in the same house and died in the same prison in Fukuoka, Japan, after one year of imprisonment. They ended their short, twenty-seven years of life together. Song Mong-kyu was undoubtedly, Yun Dong-ju’s inseparable lifetime companion.
Dong-ju: The Portrait of A Poet shows how a hero is not born, but made. Yun Dong-ju is now a respected poet, but he was once an ordinary young man, who was quite shy. He matured into a great man who stuck by his convictions until the very end of his life. Indeed, he used his pen for good until the very end.
These two films involved a great deal of hardships. Both Dong-ju: The Portrait of A Poet and Spirits’ Homecoming had limited screenings upon release. During the production of Spirits’ Homecoming, many South Korean politicians prosecuted director Cho. At one point, director Cho received a call from a politician who wanted to make a donation. Upon meeting him, director Cho realized the politician wanted to meet him in order to “discipline” the director. The politician tossed the film’s script in front of the director’s eyes and told director Cho that the testimonies from the comfort women victims were all deceitful lies. He went so far as to say, ‘Why show people this film? Women and the old people die during war anyways.’
There were not many who stepped up to invest for Spirits’ Homecoming at the beginning of film production. Fortunately, some South Korean citizens donated money for the film to be produced. Many of the actors had simple jobs and were ordinary employees. They also had to pay for their own transportation and lodging fees, but they willingly participated in the film without pay. Despite these difficulties, after fourteen years of raising funds and finalizing the production, Spirits’ Homecoming was released this year on February 24th.
At the beginning of this year, director Cho went to seven different locations in the U.S. for a screening of Spirits’ Homecoming. The screening met overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences, which included Congressman Mike Honda and other members of the United States House of Representatives. The film was also able to have a private screening in Osaka and Yokohama, Japan, where the audience expressed pity and disbelief.
Spirits’ Homecoming and Dong-ju: The Portrait of A Poet reflect a recent trend in the South Korean film industry but, more importantly, the response towards these films reflects a new wave of attention given to the resisters and the neglected victims of the Japanese Rule, lest they be forgotten.
-By Ju Young Kwag ’19
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