Sunday, April 04, 2010

Asia Society: Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters

Her name was Hou Dong E, but she was known as “Gai Shanxi,” meaning “the most beautiful woman in Shanxi Province.” Unfortunately, beauty can be a curse in a time of war. Such was certainly the case for Gai Shanxi and the other Shanxi women forced to serve as sex slaves for the occupying Imperial Japanese military during World War II. Though she never had the chance to bear witness to the atrocities she suffered, Ban Zhongyi tells the story of the former so-called “comfort woman” on her behalf in his documentary, Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters, which screens this Friday at the Asia Society as part of its provocative series of contemporary independent Chinese cinema.

In 1992, an aged Gai Shanxi set out for an NGO conference investigating the Japanese military’s gross mistreatment of “comfort women” (sometimes also referred to as “Wianbu”), but ill health forced her to turn back. While most of the local villagers still referred to her with her ostensibly affectionate nickname, they largely shunned her, considering her a shamed woman. However, the picture of Shanxi that emerges from the recollections of her surviving “sister” prisoners is one of genuine nobility.

According to their testimony, Gai Shanxi ought to be called the Saint of Shanxi. Frequently abused to the point of physical trauma, she still served as the younger girls’ protector, often taking their place with particularly abusive servicemen. As a fittingly tragic conclusion to her story, Gai Shanxi died before Ban could find her, yet that provided further impetus to document her story.

Indeed, Ban preserves the historically valuable first-person accounts of several of her former “sisters,” conveying a horrifying sense of brutish reality they endured. Midway through, he briefly seems to lose his way, taking a discursive detour to relate the military successes of the Communist 8th Route Army. While it detracts from the women’s stories, it might have been necessary to include what might have been only shining moment in Chinese CP history, in order to get his highly controversial film made.

Though many in Japan still persistently deny “comfort women” were systematically sexually assaulted, Ban found one Japanese veteran who essentially confirms on-camera the nature and regularity of such crimes (though he understandably tries to minimize his own culpability). That alone makes Ban’s film quite an important cinematic investigation.

Ultimately, Sisters acts as a testament to a truly beautiful woman, who should have been venerated by her community in her own lifetime. Though its execution is imperfect, it is an important, sometimes angry film that should not be ignored. It screens this Friday (4/9) as the Asia Society’s retrospective of independent Chinese films enters its second to last week of programming.