Another entrant into the International Feature Competition is this 2013 film from South Korea by directors Dong-Ryung Kim and Kyoung-Tae Park called Tour of Duty. The 2 and ½ hour documentary focuses its gaze on three South Korean woman – two of whom were “comfort” women for American soldiers during the Korean War while the third was born of one of these types of forced pairings. Plenty of films and documentaries have been made about men during wartime, but very few have looked at how women are affected by war or military bases in foreign countries. This film gives a voice to three such women.
The two directors take a distinctly hands off and minimalist approach to telling the stories of these three ladies. There is very little dialogue and long moments of silence with just the picture telling the story. As a result you have to look at the body language and the looks on their faces while they go on about their lives. What is painfully obviously is how traumatic what all three went through was for them. Even sixty years later it is still etched on their faces. Three more of the overlooked victims of war.
While World War II was going on the Korean military police procured comfort women and forced them into prostitution with soldiers. Even after the Second World War ended the using of comfort women continued. It almost became like an accepted part of South Korean society. During the Korean War (1950-1953) and afterwards U.S. soldiers fought then took up residence on bases built in South Korea. While working in these military brothels the women were subjected to all forms of cruelty both physical and mental.
The first woman looks to be about 70-odd years old and runs her own small restaurant. She is shown silently working only stopping to eat or inject herself with some unknown medication every so often. Suddenly she is sitting down and begins telling her story. She speaks of her pain and how she will keep it inside until she dies. She saw many women like herself.
Tells of how she got pregnant so many times. After 26 abortions she couldn’t take it anymore nor could her body, so she had a hysterectomy when she was 29 years old. Her reproductive organs were ravaged and torn. Before this she had two sons, Bobby and Jimmy. They were raised by their grandmother. The father had asked her to marry him. She refused the American soldier as she was not the marrying type and so he refused to take Bobby back to the United States with him. Ending it all she states that life is boring for her now. She is alone.
Even more alone is the second woman who is approximately the same age. She goes around town in the dead of night rummaging through garbages collecting things. During the day she spends her time doing exercises and painting in her tiny one room home. Her name is Park In-Soon and she tells of how she had two daughters named Kunti and Presley. She misses her daughters terribly. Never really says where they are (we learn that they are in the United States), but a couple of times wishes that Presley would come find her. Her pimp, a woman, took advantage of her because she could not read and always told Park she owed her more money. While telling her story her pain is less internalized and more evident. She is angry and yells often. Is frustrated because she feels like no one understands.
The third woman is younger who is obviously part Korean and part African American. Her name is Sungja,is married to a white man and she is 60 years old (born on December 2, 1954). Right off the bat she states how much she misses her mother, but wonders how she could have thrown Sungja away. Wonders if her mother loved her father. Believes that the U.S. Army is her father. As angry as that makes her she cannot forget her mother. Her mother brought her to an orphanage. The sisters told her that her mother would come back to get her when she was in grade 3. Sungja soon realized that her mother was never coming back. She ran away from the orphanage at age 15. Sungja tells her story and then takes a walk around the abandoned U.S. base and the adjoining whorehouse that her friend Sera worked at. At the end of the film she is at the first woman’s restaurant eating a hamburger. Alone. She silently starts crying.
There is an almost poetic touch to how the two directors bring the three women’s stories to the screen. It is not done in your typical interview or old footage style and that makes it even harder to watch as it is much more real. Visual cues or hints to the story are cleverly built into the many moments of silence. It becomes totally surreal in the third part when Sungja begins talking to an unseen Annie about her friends Sera and then it turns into a short film entitled “The Story of Annie and Sera 1969-78”. At a certain point Sungja becomes Sera and re-enacting (these scenes were scripted and rehearsed with the two directors) her life. The way it is put together the film points to the fact that though the large U.S. base is abandoned there are still American soldiers who come to Korea and engage in the seedier parts of life. Drawing attention to the fact that the suffering continues. Powerful stuff!