Of all the awful things that happened in the middle part of the 20th century, the trafficking, incarceration, enslavement and forced prostitution of women and girls from across Asia (including at least 65 Dutch women in what is now known as Indonesia) who were abducted for use as “comfort women” by the Japanese military remains one of the least discussed and most controversial. The issue (arguably) runs most deeply in Korea which had been experiencing a prolonged and often brutal era of colonial rule even prior to the intensification of hostilities in the early 1940s. The torment these women faced did not end with the ceasefire as entrenched social attitudes left them not only with a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma but also internalised shame which made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences even to those closest to them. Now more than ever, it is important that this story be told and the long suffering of these women, many of whom are no longer with us, is finally acknowledged.
In 1943, fourteen year old Jung-min (Kang Hana) is an only child living with her cheerful father and stern mother somewhere in rural Korea. Energetic and headstrong, Jung-min thinks it sport to take a handmade amulet from one of her friends in a game despite her friend’s obvious distress. This earns her another switch beating from her disappointed mother who, regretfully, later makes her a similar amulet of her own. However, the amulet does Jung-min little good in the short term as the soldiers finally arrive and take her away with them to an uncertain destination.
Packed into a freight train with other similarly aged girls in the same situation, Jung-min is able to keep her cool and bonds with the girl next to her, Young-hee (Seo Mi-ji), who is already physically ill aside from the additional stress. Far from the shoe factory one of the girls had imagined, this collection of children is bound for a military brothel where they will be required to speak only Japanese, remaining within their tiny rooms which store only a mattress and water bucket, and endure repeated rape and violence at the hands of their captors.
Running parallel to the 1943 narrative is a jump forward to 1991 around the time in which the government finally decides to address the comfort woman issue with calls for registration so that all women affected may apply for any available compensation. Young-ok (Son Sook), now an older woman making a living from textiles and sewing amulets just like Jung-min’s, is only one of these women. Through her friendship with a shaman and her protege Eun-kyung (Choi Ri), Young-ok finds her thoughts returning to the past once again.
The younger Koreans of 1943 had known only the Japanese occupation, were educated in Japanese, and had been taught that they were “true countrymen” as one Jung-min’s friends puts it. Jung-min’s carefree, rural town is almost untouched by politics as Korean is spoken freely, folk traditions permitted, Arirang sung in the fields, and teenage girls wander around freely with no one to say to much about it. All this ends one day when the soldiers arrive, forcibly abducting Jung-min and any other young woman in the area without even a word of explanation to their parents or families. Despite the gradual erosion of their cultural identity, these women are now members of a subjugated nation so far below those of mainland birth that they barely qualify as people at all.
The treatment that these women undergo, many of them only children, is truly horrific from repeated rape to physical violence, starvation, and the ever present threat of death. Only Japanese is to be spoken in the camp which houses women and girls from both Korea and China, watched over by a Korean middle man and a Japanese madam. Allowed out of their fetid rooms for brief periods of respite (or later different kinds of work) the girls attempt to make the most of things, singing folk songs and remembering happier times. There is no real possibility of escape other than that found by one of the girls who has already gone mad after one of the visiting troops brought her own brother with it.
Indeed, there is no true escape even after the war’s end. Seeing the testimony of another former comfort woman on the television and hearing news of the programme to register women affected by wartime atrocity both for purposes of research and possible compensation, Young-ok is motivated to speak out. When she approaches a young man at the post-office to ask for the relevant forms, her nerves fail her, only to overhear the behind the counter conversation about the comfort women programme. It seems, there have been no claimants so far. The man behind the desk is unsurprised but also childishly amused. “You’d have to be some kind of loony to come out with all that kind of thing” he says, “it’s a bit…well…isn’t it?”. Not only have these women suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, they’ve also been forced into internalised shame thanks to conservative social attitudes regarding purity and surrender.
In this way, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Kwihyang) stops being about Japan and Korea but becomes a wider commentary about the place of women in society and, more specifically, what happens to women in time of war. Many of the soldiers remark that the girls remind them of their sisters, yet they still go ahead with the things they do, treating these women as little more than receptacles for the fluids of their lust and rage, not much more sentient than a metal bucket. The Japanese soldiers are fairly one dimensional in their evilness, save for one who has the courage to say no, but his decision to help the girls brings only disaster for all, himself included. Berated as “bitches” for the Japanese army, the girls are denied any kind of agency and, should they outlive their usefulness, are taken off to a “better place” which smacks of the old lie told to children whose beloved dog has been taken to live a happier life “on a farm”.
Nothing can be said or done to repair what was done to these young women or return any of the things which were taken from them, but at least in telling their story there can be a kind of restitution and an end to the ongoing shame which continues to engulf their lives even though they themselves were always blameless. In reality many of these girls never got to come home, a fact which the shamanistic rites at the film’s conclusion intend to rectify, allowing Young-ok a chance to reconnect with a fallen friend whose spirit is finally guided homeward to the peaceful family life of the pre-war years. A necessarily difficult watch, Spirits’ Homecoming is a sensitive treatment of its horrific subject matter which, even if edging towards the sentimental, is resolutely unafraid to lay bare the degree of suffering inflicted on these women not only during the wartime years but throughout the rest of their lives.
Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)