Friday, 18 January 2013

Behind Forgotten Eyes

Director: Anthony Gilmore
Writer: Anthony Gilmore
Producer: Anthony Gilmore, Alex Ferrari
Country: USA
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: screener disc

You want horror? Real horror? Forget all the zombies and monsters and masked psychos, real horror is the inhumanity that people perpetrate in real life against other people who have no say, no power, no hope. Here’s some real horror in a documentary about a shameful event from world history which remains largely unknown.

As anyone with a reasonable knowledge of military history should know, Japan invaded China in the mid 1930s, a conflict which segued straight into the Second World War, meaning that Japan was actually at war for a full decade. The Japanese army was an unstoppable force, thoroughly drilled in the principles of death before dishonour and loyalty to the Emperor as well as the notion that non-Japanese people were racially inferior.

Among many other atrocities, the Japanese soldiers committed rape on a massive scale and this worried the army top brass, not because of any human rights considerations but rather because of the huge incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among the troops. The solution was army-run brothels called ‘comfort stations’ where young women were kept to service the soldiers and could be regularly checked for STDs.

Japan had actually been occupying Korea since about 1910 (I didn’t know this) and most of the ‘comfort women’ were brought in from that country, although there were also some from the Philippines and China itself. Girls as young as 14 or 15 were rounded up by the occupying forces, put onto lorries and shipped over to China where they were effectively used as official military sex slaves for anything up to seven or eight years. The women had no hope of escape because they had no idea where they were and had nowhere to go. They simply stayed in the comfort stations servicing a dozen or more soldiers every day.

When the war ended, most of them found their way home and settled back into their home towns and villages, too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone where they had been or what had happened.

Behind Forgotten Eyes is a sympathetic and harrowing feature-length documentary telling the story of the comfort stations and their legacy. There are interviews with some of the surviving women, who are now all in their seventies or eighties, plus historians, academics and lawyers. Possibly the most fascinating parts however are interviews with former Japanese soldiers, including a military doctor who worked at a comfort station. Their mixture of shame and acceptance is genuinely uncomfortable.

What could have been an hour and a half of dry talking heads is interspersed with animated sequences depicting the events being described. These are designed and filmed in such a way as to look like old Asian animation (although not anime, thankfully) and though this may sound like the subject is being trivialised, the simplicity of the technique hammers home the awfulness of the situation, much like Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus did with the Holocaust. (Graphissimo Design is credited with the animated sequences.)

There are two parts to the film: the first half recounts what happened in the 1930s and 1940s; the second concerns the emergence of this completely forgotten story into the public domain when one of the women spoke out forty years later and what has happened since. A home for the woman has been established through charitable donations and various human rights lawyers have taken up their cause. The continuing scandal is the current Japanese government’s denial that this ever happened.

No-one can deny the existence of the comfort stations but the the Japanese government is adamant that the forcible migration of girls and young women from Korea to China for this purpose is a myth. They point out that, apart from the women in question, no-one has ever come forward to confirm this happened. There is not one witness to these alleged kidnappings anywhere in Korea.

This is a thought-provoking twist in what is on the whole a very balanced and fair documentary. Perhaps history is indeed being rewritten, not by the victors but by the victims. After all, the only evidence we have is the testimony of a relatively small number of very old ladies, many from poor backgrounds, none of whom mentioned any of this until 10-20 years ago. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we are dealing with some sort of mass delusion. But then the counter-argument is that very few people who might have seen these kidnappings seventy years ago are still alive. Furthermore, the shame associated with the whole affair means that it was all swept under the carpet when the women returned home in the 1940s. One of the interviewees explains that she never told her father what had happened during the years she was gone and her husband never knew anything had happened at all.

Behind Forgotten Eyes is a powerful, well-crafted and important documentary film which deserves to be seen by anyone who claims an interest in Asian history or culture. Writer-director Anthony Gilmore shares production credit with Alex Ferrari, proving that Alex has much more to his cinematic skills and ambitions than stylish genre fun pieces like Broken and Cyn. Yoon-jin Kim from Lost narrates the feature, which is now starting to play festivals. I could see this having some theatrical legs to be honest and it’s certainly the sort of thing that I would expect to find on a major TV channel.

You can watch, you can enjoy, all the action and shocks and thrills of a great movie - but it’s important to know about the real world too.

MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 24th September 2007

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