No ‘Comfort’ in Silence: A Review of Spirits Homecoming

CW: discusses comfort women, sexual violence, war, murder

Spirits Homecoming (2016) tackles an issue that has been silenced by the governments of two countries, telling the heartbreaking story of the young Korean girls who lived and died in comfort stations littered across the Japanese occupied territories during the Second World War. Based off the real testimonies of surviving comfort women, Spirits Homecoming follows Jung-Min (14) and Young-Hee (15), who are kidnapped by the Japanese Imperial Army, enlisted as sex slaves and forced to endure endless hours of abuse, rape and trauma on a daily basis. As a fictional drama, Spirits Homecoming captures the audience’s attention with an intense, yet thought-provoking plotline and beautiful cinematography. It then prompts its viewers to think more deeply about the movie’s origins and, as a result, educates them about events that even the Korean and Japanese governments are hesitant to acknowledge.

The movie switches between two intertwining plotlines — the first set in the present and the second in colonial Korea. The opening scene introduces the audience to an old woman making talismans and watching the broadcast of a former comfort woman telling the story of her experiences. The film then takes the audience back in time to a Japanese-occupied Korea where young Jung-Min, who lives in a poor but happy family, is forcibly taken from her home by soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army. She meets Young-Hee — who, the audience later learns, is the old woman from the opening scene — in the back of the truck transporting them to a comfort station, where they are to endure not only the loss of their virginity through rape, but also beatings and humiliation at the hands of the soldiers. The movie intimately portrays the experiences of the girls and their tactics for survival within the station, and the mental toll that this has on them. The movie does not demonise all Japanese Imperial Soldiers, as there is one who shows Jung-Min and the girls’ kindness. Buying a token to the comfort station out of curiosity, he chooses to talk to and give Jung-Min a break instead of forcing her to have sex with him. He later hands her a map, hoping to facilitate her escape. In the latter part of the movie, the same soldier’s empathy is again witnessed by the audience when he cannot bring himself to shoot one of the young girls. However, the consequence of his “weakness” is deadly.

The movie reaches a climax when the girls attempt to escape from the comfort station, but when one girl is caught, both Jung-Min and Young-Hee return for the sake of the others. The consequence of this is the large-scale torture of all the girls. The morning after the escape, the soldiers lure the captured girl and others who have been causing trouble into a truck under false pretences. These girls are then killed and burned in a mass grave; a tragic practice depicted in paintings by former comfort women, and unfortunately the fate of many of the girls. The movie ends in the liberation of Korea at the end of the war, showing how many girls were massacred in order to cover up the existence of the comfort stations. In the present day, the older Young-Hee is still tortured by her experiences. However, upon meeting a young Shaman who channels Jung-Min through a talisman, she is able to face her past and participate in a ritual to finally bring the spirit of her young friend home.

It is quite clear that Spirits Homecoming is confronting. It’s upsetting, painful and, at times, violent — but this is precisely why it is so important. A large proportion of the comfort women did not survive their ordeal, and, as the movie shows, the girls were killed if sick or causing trouble. Many more of the remaining girls were murdered after Japan’s surrender in the Second World War.

More tragically than this, is that due to the legacy of the Neo-Confucian ideology that had dominated Korea in centuries prior, many of the women who did survive were marginalised and alienated from their families and the rest of society. This was due to the shame they held over their loss of purity and the societal taboo surrounding sexual assault victims. This left the majority of these women to live the rest of their lives in silence and poverty, never able to recover from the torture they faced. While Spirit’s Homecoming fails to show the poverty many of the elderly former comfort women were forced to endure, or the hardships the women had to live through directly after their liberation from the comfort stations, the subplot involving an elderly Young-Hee does acknowledge the internal pain the women lived with even decades after their ordeal. Young-Hee’s journey in confronting her past, and her hesitation to do so, implies that she had deeply internalised her experience, feeling as though she could never express her pain.

In the 1990s, feminist groups encouraged former comfort women to no longer be afraid and to tell their story. Spirits Homecoming is deeply inspired by the testimonies that followed this call, and even more directly by the harrowing artworks painted by some of the women during therapy sessions. Shown during the credits of the movie, the images intimately depict the experiences of the comfort women: from their kidnapping, to the stations themselves, to the violence they had to experience. The movie emulates these events, and the trauma felt by the girls, and the final product is haunting. Never has a movie so deeply touched my heart, but how could it not? It is difficult to watch, but the experiences of the comfort women should no longer be trivialised and ignored.

Wikipedia only lists six movies about comfort women. Although Spirits Homecoming eventually gained international attention and won multiple awards, it was almost halted in production and faced the reluctance of many cinemas to even show the movie in the first place. This proves that despite the efforts of feminist groups and some of the former comfort women themselves, awareness of the issue remains incredibly low. Indeed, many would rather ignore the harrowing experiences of the comfort women entirely. While still a drama, Spirits Homecoming is unique as it tells the hard truth of the girl’s experience, without sugar-coating or ignoring details. It also empathises with the tribulations of elderly “grandmothers” or former comfort women by telling their story in the subplot involving Young-Hee. The movie pays tribute to the comfort women; drawing on Korea’s culture of Shamanism, it attempts to bring the girls’ spirits home.