Moving and mystical film shows closure of a comfort woman’s horrifying experience | Film Review by Ed Jopling (Summer 2019 issue)
(Spirits’ Homecoming, Directed by Jung-Rae Cho, DVD, Jo Entertainment, 2016)
What flaw lies within the human psyche that we excuse brutality to one another on an epic scale? The flaw lies in our decision to see someone else as an “other,” which frees us to join in their oppression. Once that distinction takes hold in the oppressor, the victims are no longer human and may be exploited.
In Spirit’s Homecoming, award-winning director Jung-Rae Cho does not attempt to delve into the tendency of the powerful to oppress the weak. Rather, he tries to expose the problem at a deeper level by telling his story through the victim’s eyes. This moving and mystical film describes the horrific experiences of Korean comfort women, that is, the women forced into military sexual slavery before and during World War II.
Through the use of flashback, he tells the story of Young-Hee (played by Mi-Ji Seo) and Jung-Min (played by Ha-Na Kang), two teenage girls who are taken from their homes and forced in to sexual slavery by the Japanese Army.
Set simultaneously in 1991 and 1943, the film opens in 1991 as a now-elderly survivor Young-Hee (played by Sook Son) listens to a former comfort woman being interviewed on television. Young-Hee suffers from suppressed trauma of her past experience and a sense of survivor’s guilt linked to the death of her close friend Jung-Min in 1943. The lifelong shame of her experience at age 15 is vivid within her.
The television program urges former comfort women to tell their story publicly; however, she overhears the office workers speak with scorn about such victims, suggesting that a women who admitted such an experience would have to be insane. This only adds to the pain she suffers.
However, the elder Young-Hee finds her strength in Eun-Kyung (played by Choi-Ri). Eun-Kyung has experienced a personal trauma of her own, is taken in by the local shaman and begins to experience mystical powers. Upon holding a cloth talisman called a gwe-bul-no-ri-gae, similar to one given to Young-Hee by her friend Jung-Min in 1943, Eun-kyung begins to channel the spirit of Jung-Min.
Through Eun-Kyung’s visions, the film depicts the atrocities Young-Hee and Jung-Min suffered at the hands of the Japanese military when they and dozens of other young girls are warehoused in a stable-like building. There, they are repeatedly raped and beaten by the Japanese soldiers for sadistic sexual gratification.
We see the girls survive months and years of brutality with only occasional moments of peace when they are allowed outside as a group to briefly see the sun and breathe fresh air. In the end, once they become ill or deemed to have outlived their usefulness, they are marched off to a pit to be shot. Their corpses are burned. Young-Hee and Jung-Min survive and escape when the Japanese soldiers retreat at the war’s end. However, they are pursued by the Japanese commander who wants to destroy the human evidence of the brutality their army has inflicted. Jung-Min dies by the commander’s bullet as she shelters Young-Hee from the gunshots.
Returning to 1991, we find the elderly Young-Hee, attending a shamanic ritual wherein Eun-Kyung channels the spirit of Jung-Min once more and the two face each other for the first time since Jung-Min’s death in 1943. In a ritual called the Spirit’s Homecoming, the shaman Eun-Kyung seeks to unshackle the spirits of lost women and girls who died as comfort women from the horrors that befell them in this world. Eun-Kyung’s ritual releases them to journey to the spirit realm.
There is much tragic beauty to ponder in this film. It is not a documentary, making no attempt to tell the broader story of the approximately 200,000 young women, some little more than children, who were forced into military sexual slavery. Rather, it seeks to dig deeper into one fictional individual’s experience, describing the spiritual pain they suffered, as well as the guilt, shame and embarrassment they experienced.
Nowadays we address such issues more openly; however, it is important to remember in the decades following World War II, topics of sexual violence were suppressed and were not spoken about.
To effectively tell his story, Director Cho beautifully uses the supernatural element of shamanic vision to connect past and present. As a vehicle for this story, the idea works well and is effective in achieving its goal of reliving the past and seeing the situation through the eyes of the survivor.
The film is rich in representational imagery with the butterfly playing a central role as metaphor for the spirit. We see Jung-Min happily watching a butterfly and later, while walking along a pathway, Eun-Kyung has a vision of Jung-Min joyfully pursuing that butterfly. Later, in the commander’s quarters, we briefly see the Japanese commander pinning a dead butterfly in his collection, breaking a wing in the process, symbolizing death and broken spirits of these young girls. Finally, we again see butterflies, taking wing from the dead bodies of the executed girls, their spirits now free to return home.
The use of the shaman channeling the spirit of Jung-Min adds transcendence, lifting the story above the dark cruelty it explores. In the end, it offers an uplifting sense of redemption when Young-Hee, having spoken with her friend Jung-Min, through Eun-Kyung’s trance, can finally let go of her shame and her survivor’s guilt.
Spirits’ Homecoming is effective in exploring both the experience of the former comfort women, as well as the aftermath of that experience. Rather than cold historical rendition of fact, this film offers the viewer to engage the imagination to connect with the reality of the inhumanity we inflict upon one another. The story is both captivating and uncomfortable; however, the film does not exploit the emotions of the viewer. It does, however, implore us to reflect on how we view one another, and reminds us to stop and think before we label someone as “other,” or deem their ways as inferior to ours.
Spirit’s Homecoming carries an important lesson for our current times. When memories of our recent history die with the last who had lived it, it is then we are ripe to repeat our mistakes.