Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Cho Jung-rae, 2016)

sprits-homecomingOf 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)

The Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Lee Hae-Young, 2015)

the-silencedThe Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) has all the classic genre aspects of the boarding school horror story familiar to fans of gothic literature everywhere, but this is no Victorian tale of repressed sexuality and hallucinatory psychosis. What The Silence does is take all of these essential elements and remix them as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism. Surrounded by quislings and forced into submission in order to survive, how does the essential soul of an oppressed people survive? The Silence would seem to argue that perhaps it can’t, but can evolve and learn to resist its colonisers even if it has to bend to do so.

Korea, 1938. Teenage girl Ju-ran (Park Bo-Young) is dropped off by her rather cool step-mother at a hospital school before her parents relocate to Tokyo. On arrival, Ju-ran switches to her Japanese name of Shizuko which raises a stir among her new schoolmates because another girl with the same name previously occupied her new bed before disappearing suddenly without a word of goodbye. Her physical resemblance to the previous Shizuko, coupled with her ill-health, provokes mistrust among the other girls, especially top girl Yuka and her minions. Shizuko is now expected to get used to all of the school’s arcane rules and regulations as soon as possible or risk harsh punishment. This includes “treatment” for her illness which involves frequent distribution of pills, injections, and other experimental courses. Before long Shizuko begins to notice odd behaviour among the girls, some of whom begin to disappear.

After a lengthy series of diplomatic manoeuvres beginning in the Meiji era, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 beginning a period of direct rule which would continue until the end of the Second World War. During this period, Japanese became the dominant, official language and mainland Japanese culture sought to displace that of the indigenous Korean society. The school, as an official institution, is careful to follow these regulations to the letter. Each of the pupils has a Japanese name which becomes their “official” designation, the Korean identity is “buried” with Korean birth names used only with close friends whose trust is certain.

Similarly, the school’s official language is Japanese with lessons and official business always conducted in the appropriate language. Linguistic shifts suddenly become an interesting phenomenon as the girls continue to talk to each other in their native Korean in the school room and out (even if sticking to Japanese names) but maintain order by obeying commands in the language of authority. The headmistress generally sticks to Japanese, at least when she’s at the lectern, but notably switches to Korean when addressing a girl personally or when she wishes to appear kind and non-threatening rather than authoritarian. This point is further brought home when one girl descends into a fit of rage and attacks another, ranting and raving in Japanese whilst gripping the other girl’s throat. Korean is both the language of kindness and friendship as opposed to the coldness and violence of the official Japanese, and a tool to be manipulated in order to create a false sense of camaraderie between colonised and coloniser.

The school is staffed by collaborators working with the Japanese authorities and training these young women to be model Japanese citizens. Part of their classwork involves a large embroidery project sewing beautiful pink cherry blossoms onto a map of Korea – a motif which is later chillingly repeated by sewing those same flowers onto the body the body of a collaborator. Tokyo has become a kind of magical wonderland paradise and the school even offers the girls hope of advancement there through winning a competition based on physical ability in which the school will select the two most promising candidates and dispatch them to the capital. The headmistress, once the final mystery has been exposed, begs the Japanese military forces to put their faith in her because she is determined to become a loyal Japanese citizen and leave this backward Korea behind forever.

The main thrust of the narrative centres around the interplay between these teenage girls who stand in for a subjugated people, ruled over by their collaborating teachers. Shizuko (Ju-ran) strikes up a friendship with Kazue (or Yeong-duk to restore her Korean name), previously the best friend of her predecessor. The two girls become closer though the the disappearance of the previous Shizuko always stands between them. Beginning to solve the mystery, the two girls are the only opposition to the ruling regime as they accept the various “benefits” of their treatment and education, and return to use them against their oppressors. The girls’ innocence has been corrupted by their experiences, but this same corruption is the very thing which allows them to take a stand for their independence.

Though the supernatural is posited as the ultimate enemy, the solution of the mystery leads straight back into the political realm rather than any less Earthly kind of evil. Director Lee Hae-young generates a supremely creepy atmosphere from the opening sequence onwards which empahises the gothic aesthetic and inescapable presence of something dark lurking in the shadows. Though using minimal instances of jump scares, supernatural episodes, and hallucinatory images, the film pushes its horrors into the real world even if the solution it ultimately offers is more akin to a superhero origin story than a revolutionary uprising. Beautifully photographed, The Silenced is the story of those denied a voice realising they have the right to rebel but like any gothic horror story paints its central battle as an ongoing, unwinnable fight against the darkness.


Original trailer (select English subs from settings menu)