J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

HRW ’17: The Apology

Rather than deal with the lingering shame of the “Comfort Women” issue, it seems Japanese officials are just trying to run out the clock until the last survivor passes away. At least, that seems to be the strategy of the more “responsible” politicians. There are also those who continue to deny and even defend the institutionalized sexual assault and rape of young women throughout Asia and the Pacific during WWII. Tiffany Hsiung follows three “Grandmothers” well into their eighties, who still struggle with the lingering repercussions of their ordeals in The Apology (trailer here), which screens during the problematically politicized 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

“Grandma” Gil Won-ok is the most outspoken of the Grandmothers. Since 1992, she has been a fixture at the weekly “Wednesday Demonstration” outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Due to her activism, her sad history is no secret, but fortunately she has a good deal of support from the organizing Korean Council, her fellow survivors, and her adopted son, who is now a pastor. During the course of the film, she will tour Japan and present petitions at the UN, in hopes of pressuring the Japanese government into making a belated but sincere apology.

In contrast, Grandma Adela in Roxas City outside Manila has yet to confide her secret to her closest family, even including her beloved late husband. They know she attends events sponsored by a support group for comfort station survivors. During the course of the film, she will finally reveal her secret to her son.

As the third, “in-between” example, many of the old-timers in Grandma Cao’s provincial Chinese village know of her suffering during the war, but her grown adoptive daughter remains oblivious. Never allowed an education, Grandma Cao is not an activist type, but she might start to make a few small steps.

The brutality these three women and their sisters endured is unimaginably horrific. It has also been conclusively verified, which makes the Japanese government’s intransigence utterly baffling. Arguably, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and the rest of Southeast Asia should be forging close alliances to counter-balance the CP Mainland’s heavy-handed belligerence in the region. However, Chinese propaganda masterfully exploits lingering resentment of Japanese war crimes. (Indeed, villains in Chinese movies are much more likely to be Imperial Japanese than Yankee capitalist dogs.) The treatment of Comfort Women is the most egregious example. The more they deny, the more they play into Beijing’s hands.

Regardless, of geopolitical concerns, Grandma Gil and her fellow survivors deserve a blasted apology. Their testimony is absolutely heart-breaking. Hsiung deserves credit for handling them with all due sensitivity, but still recording their stories for posterity. Indeed, that is a pressing concern, as developments during filming make tragically clear.

The Apology is an excellent film, with a crusading spirit and a humanist heart. Unfortunately, it is one of the few worthy documentaries screening at this year’s HRW festival. Narrowly focused, this year’s fest lacks diversity of subject matter and too often presents political polemics rather than exposes. Seriously, in what sense has Bill Nye’s rights ever been abridged? Therefore, The Apology is the one to see when it screens today (6/10) at the IFC Center and tomorrow (6/11) at the Walter Reade.

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