Spirits Homecoming (2016)
It is alleged that during World War 2 the Japanese army kept 1 million women from occupied countries and kept them as slaves where they were euphemistically known as 'comfort women'. If little is known about them, it may be because their story has not been told in film before. The film took the director 14 years to make. The actress playing Jungmin (Ha-nung) was not paid but will receive a share of the profits.
This film is effective at showing how girls as young as 14 were removed from their homes and ordered to with dozens of men daily, and where they faced terrible punishments for disobeying orders. The film is set mainly in 1943, interspersed with scenes in 1991 where a much older Young-OK tries to settle her past and say goodbye to her friend Jungmin who didn't survive the war.
When Eun-kyung goes to a temple to train as a shaman, she helps Young-OK communicate with Jungmin. The past is linked with the present in all kinds of interesting ways. Eunkyung is affected by her father's murder as one of the comfort women is by watching her brother's death. Keepsakes are given from character to character and the elderly Young-OK is seen cradling a charm totem much like the one given to Jungmin by her mother in the past.
The film doesn't shy away from scenes of violence both physical and sexual. Day in, day out, the girls are expected to have sex with dozens men which doesn't stop even when they are menstruating. There is no way out from this and girls who attempt to escape are rounded up and shot. However, it achieves a certain poetry in later scenes, such as when dozens of white butterflies float in the meadows, a visual metaphor for the souls of the girls returning to their homes.
Viewers familiar with Korean cinema will notice a sense of a nation finally able to acknowledge its past and the brutality of the Japanese occupiers in particular. Japan's invasion of Korea has already been depicted in recent films such as The Handmaiden and Age of Shadows. This film has a strong sense of Korean identity, with the traditional folk song Arirang played prominently in several scenes.
Lead actress Ha-Nang is very innocent and pure, playing a girl of 14 who somehow doesn't lose her innocence. Son Sook has the eyes of someone who has seen too many horrors but still has the capacity to forgive. The movie could have been better edited but it tells a difficult story well.