A Review of Daisil Kim-Gibson’s Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women
By Joohee Lee

Originally from: http://hcs.harvard.edu/~yisei/backissues/spring_99/film1.html


Comfort women: knowing nothing about the topic I found the word to sound almost pleasant, maternal. But at best, it is a gross understatement, a euphemism masking the inhumanity and cruelty marking the identity. During World War II, the Japanese military forced captive women of various nationalities including Filipino, Taiwanese, Japanese, with the majority being Korean, to work in a brothel-system for their soldiers. Of the women who survived the years of abuse and terror working in the comfort stations, most lived with the silent shame of their pasts. Many have died in secret. But the ones that have chosen to take political action and actively seek compensation are struggling to have their grievances heard.

"Half a century has passed since the time when every day was a dreadful nightmare for me but Japan still tells lies and avoids responsibility. How can they do that in the presence of myself and many others like me, victims who are alive and kicking?" A former comfort woman for the Imperial Army of Japan, Chung Seo-Woon posed this question to the packed audience at the 1995 NGO Forum held in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The grievances of surviving Korean comfort women against the Japanese government and their demands for a formal written apology and appropriate state-level compensation remain unmet. Why did it take half a century for survivors to actively pursue justice? My initial explanation was that the mentality of Asian societies, which regard these women with a mixture of sympathy, pity, and shame, prevented them from bringing the issue to the public. But after watching the film and speaking to Kim-Gibson, I learned that the value system of Asian societies was only part of the reason. There were factors of double discrimination because they were Asian and female. Prejudice clearly played a role, because out of the surviving comfort women, the Dutch women were the only ones whose grievances were brought to and resolved in court. Kim- Gibson pointed out the factor of priority. While the Japanese government denied the involvement of the army in establishing comfort stations, the Allied Forces, viewing the issue in context of the larger effects of war, pushed it aside.

With her latest work, Korean-American film director Daisil Kim-Gibson takes part in the effort to address the inhumane crimes committed by the imperial Army by telling the personal stories of comfort women in their own voices. "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women" documents and immortalizes the scarring experiences of surviving Korean comfort women and gives voice to Japanese officials and present-day scholars presenting their sides of the issue. The premier showing of "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women" was on March 20th at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where Kim-Gibson, along with Grandmother Chung Seo Woon, former comfort woman and feature subject of Kim-Gibson’s dramatization, were present for opening and closing comments and questions.

"Silence Broken" opens with serene and pleasant images of the Korean landscape: strong-flowing streams, verdant fields of vegetation and blossoms, mountains and peaks surrounded by mist. The wailing sounds of traditional Korean folk singing are piercing, creating an air of the accumulated sorrow, han, and suppressed rage of the scarred souls of the comfort women.

During the first half of "Silence Broken," Kim-Gibson interviews the surviving women who give glimpses into their terrible memories of working literally as sex workhorses in the military camps. Many of these personal stories have common beginnings of lies and empty promises of factory jobs, ways to get family members out of jail. The extreme poverty created by the war plagued the living conditions of majority of Koreans and made any prospects of earning money nearly impossible to refuse. It was especially hard to refuse for young girls and young women who were desperate to help out their family.

It was personally uncomfortable and disturbing to watch and listen to these Korean grandmothers tell of the unspeakable abuse they endured as young women taken from their homes, transported like goods, having their bodies become mere objects of "comfort" and sexual relief for Japanese soldiers. But pity is the last thing that these women want to evoke in the public. It is useless, for their sorrow has been branded into them. What they want is to gain some kind of quiescence from the horrors they’d endured, to have their issues be acknowledged without skepticism of its validity, to show that they have no need to keep silent or be ashamed.

"Silence Broken" does not focus as much as on the past experiences of these women during the war years, but on the women themselves. Her presence in the film is suppressed and she allows the voices of the former comfort women to guide her and the audience through their disturbing pasts and their present struggles to find some sort of quiescence in their lives. For some, it also meant having to sacrifice family support and facing criticism and blame for bringing dishonor upon themselves for revealing such a "shameful" past.

In the second half of her film, Kim-Gibson recreated the personal story of one of the survivors, Grandmother Seo Woon
Chung. I found that the dramatization gave the viewer a chance to take a breath from the intense, somewhat disorienting and emotionally taxing nature of the first half of the film, which was primarily the women’s personal testimonies and interview segments with Japanese officials.

But I also found the language transition from Korean to English to be a bit awkward. Director Kim-Gibson, during the question and answer segment after the film, explained that her decision to have the actors and actresses speak in English was the result of several factors. She wanted to allow the non-Korean speakers to get a chance to watch the film without having to focus on reading subtitles. Although she admitted that she remains a bit uncertain about the effectiveness of her intentions, Kim-Gibson said that she finds it senseless to worry over what’s already been done.

What made a lasting impression on me were the women’s inner strength, their bold willingness to speak of matters that are considered taboo by Korean society, and their unwavering stance in their cause to receive due compensation from the Japanese government. Private funds, monetary compensation, or half-hearted verbal apologies are not what they want, for these cannot possibly compensate for their loss of human dignity and chastity, which they valued more precious than life itself. They want the Japanese government to face up to the wrongdoings of their army and to help them bring a sense of closure to their struggles.

In her director’s statement, Daisil Kim-Gibson discusses the personal impact of talking to the women about their experiences and her struggle to capture on film the humanity of these women:

Since I was drawn into the lives of these women whom I call grandmas, following the Korean custom for
women old enough to have grandchildren, my life has not been the same. Old enough to be called "grandma"
myself, born in North Korea when Japan ruled our country, the stories of these women frequently made me a
captive of unruly and turbulent feelings that led me into a psychic region beyond my mind’s eye and shook me
with such fury and sorrow that I shuddered. That’s why it has been an extra struggle to make this film… In
making this film, I often felt my entire personal history becoming entangled with the history of my land of
birth, coupled with that of mankind. In rare moments when my self was stretched beyond the focal point of my consciousness, my ego, I felt I have a vision, not of mine but of an unborn work to which I was to give birth. Yet, those were fleeting moments that disappeared sooner than they came. Clearly, then, in one sense the completed work is as shallow as I am but I hope it is more. I rely on the power of the collective voices of the women who tell their stories and all those who suffered the insufferable, living or dead. If there is even an echo of those voices, the film will have a power surpassing the maker. By the time I moved to the dramatized scenes, it no longer became important for me to keep track of who said what. I began to feel the power of their stories as a common experience, their collective story becoming aglow with pain that touched my heart (Kim-Gibson "Silence Broken--Director’s Statement").

Kim-Gibson succeeds in her efforts to flesh out a historical event and to reach over generation gaps. She wants the comfort women to be more than faded figures of a period in Korean history which people of later generations may be unfamiliar with or indifferent towards. The humanity of these women drew me in and it was impossible to objectively treat their experiences as a historical event. Although there was no way I could relate to the difficulties faced by these women, the film allowed for the audience to empathize with them and to share in the common experience of human suffering. But Kim-Gibson extends her aim of public empathy to the larger issues of humanity and political and social action, ending her closing remarks with: "Add you voice to theirs [the comfort women] to bring the silenced past into the present and to a future that should never repeat the unspeakable crimes against ourselves, humanity."

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