By Paris Spence-Lang
VANCOUVER — The hundreds of thousands of “prostitutes” used by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII are known as “comfort women.” But the term is a gross misnomer—they were, in fact, sex slaves, often grossly underage. Abducted or tricked into the comfort stations, they were repeatedly beaten, raped, forced to abort, and sometimes executed. Very few of these women—now affectionately known as “Grandmothers”—are left, but their story is far from over, and it has perhaps never been told in as striking intensity as in The Apology.
When director Tiffany Hsiung was invited to document educators going to Asia, she first met some of the Grandmothers. Hsiung, who had heard very little about comfort women prior to the trip, said most of her hand-shot footage was unusable—while listening to the Grandmothers describe the atrocities they had faced, she cried so hard the camera rarely stopped shaking.
But perhaps what astounded Hsiung the most was that the Japanese government had yet to apologize to the women. The Apology follows three of these Grandmothers—Grandma Gil, Grandma Cao, and Grandma Adela—as they attempt to cope with over 70 years of largely hidden shame.
Hsiung’s directorial hand carries us gently through daily life with the Grandmothers, lives that seem ordinary on the surface but carry looming undertones of tragedy. We witness Grandma Gil—who actively protests at the age of 86—take naps with her son and sing to her friends, then have names like “cunt” and “whore” shouted to her by Japanese men. “We contribute to that shame and silence when we make it so hard for them to talk about it,” says Hsiung.
The Apology combats this shame by drawing us into the world of the survivor. Hsiung knows this: “People who watch the film… they can’t get the Grandmothers out of their head.”
The Japanese government has made apologies to the comfort women, but not adequate ones. The Grandmothers are advocating for education, something that must come from the top, but through their grassroots efforts, the hidden history is boiling to the surface.
The apology the Grandmothers are waiting for is not just for the few survivors—Grandma Gil, Grandma Cao, and Grandma Adela are speaking up for all women. “I feel like this apology would bring out hope, band us together, and create a stronger solidarity between women,” says Hsiung. And it’s not just historical: “Hearing about the hate crime all over the world, then realizing that the hate crime is also here…. With Trump’s victory and every outlandish thing that has come out of his mouth and triggered so many women… more than ever do we need to stand up for each other and not be idle by. That’s something I’ve learned from these Grandmothers. We’re gonna be here for each other. We have to.”
The Grandmothers still protest every Wednesday. You can sign their petition at www.womeninwar.net.
The Apology opens December 3rd at Vancity Theatre.BC, British Columbia, sex slavery, The Apology, The Grandmothers, Vancity Theatre, World War II