Filmmaker goes against odds to document story of ‘comfort women’

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/16 23:52:00 Last Updated: 2017/2/18 7:45:13

Guo Ke and his team are shooting documentary <em>Twenty Two</em>. Photo: Courtesy of Guo Ke

Guo Ke and his team are shooting documentary Twenty Two. Photo: Courtesy of Guo Ke

"The world is so beautiful. I want to live and see this world." When documentary maker Guo Ke heard these words from Wei Shaolan, a woman forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers during their invasion of China, he was barely able to comprehend it.

Of the many scenarios he had anticipated ahead of his interview with Wei, none of them fit this one. Now, 97 years old, she had been forced to become a "comfort woman" during the Japanese invasion from 1937 to 1945. After she managed to flee her captors, she found she was pregnant, and gave birth to a child fathered by a Japanese soldier. She and her child now live in poverty in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

In Guo's eyes, Wei's life is a tragic one, and he had prepared himself for many tales of misery.

"But she is so optimistic. She changed my views of 'comfort women.' There is a tremendous contrast between people's preconceived views about them and who they really are," Guo told the Global Times.

It's estimated that there were about 200,000 "comfort women" in China during that period.

Guo then decided that he should present the real situation of "comfort women" in China to the public in his latest documentary Twenty Two. The title refers to the number of the remaining "comfort women" he was able to find. The documentary is set to be screened in cinemas this August.

He told the Global Times that he doesn't have high expectation for box office sales, as the topic doesn't attract a great deal of attention nationwide.

"My hope is that, at the very least, people can have a correct understanding of 'comfort women.' People should know that they are victims, not prostitutes," he said.

Guo Ke (left) and Wei Shaolan Photo: Courtesy of Guo Ke

Guo Ke (left) and Wei Shaolan Photo: Courtesy of Guo Ke

Lonely path

Guo hails from Southwest China's Sichuan Province. He had been an assistant director for more than a decade before getting the opportunity to direct Twenty Two.

He first read about Wei's story online and thought to himself that it was a compelling subject.

His investor then asked him to shoot a short video first to assess whether it was worth investing millions of yuan.

But when he presented the short video in 2012, the investor was furious that Guo hadn't told the story in a way that would make people cry, a guarantee of box office success.

He criticized Guo for not digging deep enough and failing to garner the audience's sympathy.

"But what I showed was the real situation. They are real human beings, not cold machines that we can play with," he said.

Guo refused to compromise, and as a result, his investor stopped funding him. It then took him nearly two years to accumulate enough money to continue his project.

During the interviews, the most difficult decision he had to make was not how to get his subjects to talk, but whether he should ask them to reopen old wounds.

In the short video titled Thirty Two, which refers to the number of the remaining "comfort women" he can find in 2012, he tried to ask tough questions. But in Twenty Two, he abandoned this approach and wouldn't press the issue if any of the women didn't want to recall the past. "I couldn't ask my grandmother 'How did Japanese soldiers rape you?'", he said.

Most of his documentary shows their current lives. "Their past is known to the public, but their current situations are rarely known."

Into the public eye

After completing the documentary in 2014, Guo thought it would be difficult to get it approved by film authorities. But to his surprise, it was passed within two months.

He was only asked to cut one shot showing a woman being buried, as the country now advocates cremation.

The documentary includes a scene where a "comfort woman" says she yearns for Japan when she looks at a map. Also, a volunteer who has dedicated his life to helping "comfort women" says on camera that he is filled with disappointment that after so many years, there is still no apology from Japan.

China has applied to include the "comfort women" story into UNESCO's Memories of the World register in 2015, but the move was vetoed by Japan.

During the interview, Guo stressed several times that he feels quite "lonely," as few people care about this topic. Many people in the industry criticized him for not taking a more personal angle in Twenty Two.

In comparison, when it was shown in South Korea, the US and Russia, audiences didn't ask him technical questions, but were more interested in the lives of those women and how the government and society treat them. "They (foreign audiences) understand me," he said.

While the film was finished in 2014 and received approval soon after, Guo found that no one was willing to invest in its distribution.

Last year, he had to start a crowd-funding campaign. Within two months, he raised 1 million yuan ($145,862) from more than 20,000 netizens.

"That was enough money for me to make about 6,000 copies for cinemas all around the country. I will send them the copies, but it's their decision to screen it or not," he said.

Approximately 4,000 donors left their contact details for Guo to mail them tickets. He still hopes this will have some effect in changing people's prejudiced views of "comfort women."

Two months ago, a "comfort women" shelter became the center of a heated debate among the public. Many said the building represented a "shameful" story and should be demolished as it had a negative influence on students at the school next to it.

Guo says that today, only 11 of the 22 women in his film are still alive, but they shouldn't be lost to history.

It has been suggested that Guo should interview them every year, an idea that he rejects. "Many of them are quite ill now. I want to maintain an image of them in good health," he said. According to Guo, one of the women is bedridden and hooked up to an oxygen tank.

The documentary has changed Guo's career path. He is no longer content just to be a commercial director. "I want to shoot films that have societal impact," he said.
Newspaper headline: Keeping the past alive


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