Grandma Cao and Zhang Shuang Bing, author of Women in Comfort Stations. Provided to China Daily
After decades of living in silence and shame, "comfort women" have been given a face in a documentary film, sharing first-hand their accounts of the brutal experiences they lived through in this horrific chapter of history.
The film The Apology recounts the personal ordeals of three former "comfort women" — Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China and Grandma Adela in the Philippines.
"For me it's important to give them a face so they can share what they want to share and also teach us, the younger generation, of the history, as well as what their lives were like after the war," said Tiffany Hsiung, writer and director of the film.
During the World War II(1939-1945), hundreds of thousands of women and girls were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in Asian-Pacific countries, mostly China and Korea. They are euphemistically called "comfort women".
These war crimes, however, were swept under the rug and the survivors struggled with the after-effects of their harrowing experiences on their own.
By showing intimate scenes of the grandmas' daily routines and interactions with friends and loved ones, the film provides a glimpse into how they have managed to carry on despite the horrors they lived through.
Grandma Gil has been attending weekly demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for years. Despite her age and declining health, Grandma Gil remains a key spokesperson in the movement demanding an official apology from the Japanese government.<
Tiffany Hsiung (left), writer and director of The Apology, and Grandma Cao at Cao's home last year. Provided to China Daily
Grandma Cao lives in a rural mountain village in China, where what happened to hundreds of local girls after they were kidnapped has long been a well known secret among the old-timers of the area. It was only when a historian requested her testimony of her war experiences that Grandma Cao agreed to break decades of stoic silence and talk about her painful past.
Likewise, Grandma Adela hid the truth about her past from her husband. Now widowed, she is wracked with feelings of guilt for not sharing her secret with him. She resolved to tell her children, but remains unsure whether unburdening herself after all these years will make up for withholding the truth from the love of her life.
"Time is running out, if we don't capture their stories, if we don't hear it from them, it will be too late," said Hsiung, who is of Chinese descent and based in Toronto.
She started documenting the lives of former "comfort women" in 2009. Released last year, the film has garnered several honors, including the Busan Cinephile Award at the Busan International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the 2016 Cork Film Festival and it was named Film of the Year at the West Lake International Documentary Festival in China.
While the film has traveled internationally, it's still new to the US. It will be screened in San Francisco from June 8-11 and from there travel to New York and other US cities for screenings.
Hsiung said the majority of US audiences don't really know much about the issue, but the reaction they get is what they had hoped for — deeply felt compassion.
"The film is for a universal audience. You don't have to be Asian to understand or feel connected to these women, the things that they continuously go through and how incredibly strong and resilient they are," she said.
The biggest message of the film is for people to understand the role that they all potentially play in the shame.
"I think we can all do a better job of listening to the survivors of sexual violence so that they can pass that on," she said. "We can all make that change. It's a small change, but I think it has a really big impact."