When Kim Hak-sun held a press conference and offered her testimony as a former comfort woman following a statement in the Japanese Diet in which the government rejected any responsibility for wartime sexual slavery, it brought an issue into the public consciousness that many had been unwilling to reckon with. One of many films focussing on the same subject released in the last few years, Min Kyu-dong’s Herstory (허스토리) dramatises the events of the Shimonoseki Trials which took place between 1992 and 1998 and resulted in the first admission from the Japanese authorities that the basic human rights of women had been breached but nevertheless found it not incumbent on the government to offer a direct apology.
That the trial takes place in Shimonoseki is itself somewhat symbolic, given that this was the harbour from which boats to Korea and China departed and at which the women who were trafficked to Japan would have arrived. The film begins, however, in Busan where successful travel agent Moon Jung-sook (Kim Hee-ae) has ironically been accused of breaking the prevention of prostitution laws when a Japanese man is found dead after visiting a sex worker and it is revealed one of her employees had been running tours specifically geared towards sex tourism. Struck by Kim Hak-sun’s testimony, the association she leads of female business owners wants to do something to help and seeing as her company has been suspended, Jung-sook sets up a call centre on her premises for other victims of wartime sexual slavery and forced labour to come forward.
Unlike some of the recent dramas dealing with the same issue, Min focusses on the resistance towards the former comfort women coming from within Korea itself. A taxi driver Jun-sook gets a lift from goes off on a rant describing the women as former sex workers out for a paycheque who should be ashamed of their sordid pasts while in any case all of this happened decades ago so why bring it up now? He is far from alone, even the Mayor describes them as “filthy women” when Jung-sook approaches him for help, and it’s obvious that many find the subject so embarrassing that they simply do not want to discuss it and blame the women for breaking the peace by speaking out.
It’s also true that in the peculiarities of the political landscape of Korea, conservative elements tend to hold a more favourable view of Japan and the colonial era than might be expected. Economically, there are strong ties and Jung-sook, a fluent Japanese speaker, has close business relationships with Japanese clients which are endangered by her involvement with the comfort women cause. Her friend in the women’s association who runs a traditional-style hotel can be seen warmly greeting Japanese guests, at one point as she expresses her admiration for Kim Hak-sun in Korean to the television as they pass behind her. It’s clear that some would rather not rock the boat because this kind of politicking is often incompatible with running a successful business.
Jung-sook is minded to buck the trend because she sympathises with the women’s suffering and with their rejection by mainstream society. She has the confidence to do this in part because the wealth she has accrued through business success gives her an unusual amount of power in a male-dominated, capitalistic society. Still she too struggles with contemporary notions of proper womanhood in being accused of neglecting her daughter through her workaholic lifestyle especially as she is considering leaving education claiming that studying isn’t for her. Even so, the women’s association seems to have female solidarity at its heart, collecting money to support single mothers even before taking up the cause and trying to help elderly women who have no remaining family members or means to support themselves.
As she later comes to realise, the trial has meaning outside of winning and losing in allowing the women to express their trauma and regain some of their dignity. Even so, they are subject to further rejection in Japan, not least from a hotel which asks them to leave because other guests are unwilling to share the space with former sex workers. The Korean-Japanese lawyer also relates having faced racism in his life in Japan because of his Korean ethnicity while his mother’s restaurant is later graffitied because of their support of the case. Right-wing nationalists also hold protests outside the court and in Seoul accusing the women of lying, insisting that they are just “sex workers” as if sex workers weren’t worthy of human consideration anyway. In interpreting the testimony, Jung-sook becomes a kind of everywoman speaking for all women in her emotionally charged translation while inwardly conflicted in realising the toll the process is taking on some of the witnesses who are all in advanced age and often poor health. Min depicts their struggle with as much empathy as possible, avoiding the temptation to demonise while instead presenting a more nuanced perspective focussing on the women themselves and the rejection they continue face even within their own society.
Herstory is available digitally in the USA courtesy of Well Go USA.