Friday, March 25, 2016

Spirits’ Homecoming: Memorializing Korean Comfort Women

Does anyone seriously still deny the war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese military against women of many nationalities forced into sexual slavery during World War II? Apparently so. In fact, they retained one of the nation’s largest law firms, Mayer Brown LLP, to remove a modest monument to the brutalized and murdered “Comfort Women” from a Glendale city park, until the massively bad press forced them drop out of the suit. Clearly, Mayer Brown’s shadowy clients would prefer to obscure the past, which makes a new, internationally crowd-funded Korean Comfort Woman drama timely and necessary. Heartbreak is inevitable in writer-producer-director Cho Jung-rae’s Spirits’ Homecoming (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Fifteen-year-old Jung-min was a bit of a bully growing up in the Korean countryside, but she will become as much of a protector as she can to the other abducted girls, particularly the shy Yeong-hee. Like the other enslaved Comfort Women, Jung-min is constantly raped and beaten by soldiers throughout each day. It is a Hellish existence, but she might be strong enough to endure.

Somehow, Yeong-ok survived the torture of that particular comfort station, but she remains haunted by her memories. Decades later, she lives a quiet life tailoring ceremonial garments until she meets, Eun-kyeong, the new apprentice of an old shaman friend. Somehow, Eun-kyeong is especially sensitive to the spirits from Yoeng-ok’s past, receiving regular visions of the horrors that transpired in her comfort station.

Cho cross-cuts the two temporal narrative threads, contrasting the wartime atrocities with contemporary apathy and skepticism. Although the film is not sexually explicit per se, Cho never waters down the reality of their situation. As a result, Homecoming is often a hard film to watch, especially because the victims are all so young—fourteen or fifteen being the norm.

Kang Ha-na and Seo Mi-ji are quite remarkable as the young and painfully vulnerable Jung-min and Yeong-hee. They are completely convincing in what can only be described as unimaginable situations. Yet, there is nothing forced or affected about their performances. Rather, they are distressingly in the moment. While the contemporary storyline lacks the emotional force and visceral outrage of the wartime sequences, Son Sook still lends the film some mature grace as the woman now calling herself Yeong-ok.

Granted, the climatic shamanic ceremony for which the film is titled is a bit manipulative, but Cho has to give us something after all we witness. Frankly, it is a surprisingly impressive period production, considering what a shoestring labor-of-love it was. There was not a lot of institutional support during Cho’s years of development, but he had the last laugh when Homecoming took the top spot at the Korean box office for two weeks in a row. No, it is not an easy film to watch, but the talent of its young ensemble is considerable. Recommended for general audiences, Spirits’ Homecoming opens today (3/25) in New York, at the AMC Empire (assuming Mayer Brown does not try to file a last minute injunction).