'The Apology' examines the painful legacy of Asia's 'comfort women'


Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, screening at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City, centers on Grandmother Adela of the Philippines, Grandmother Cao of China and Grandmother Gil of South Korea. All three are in their 80s and are survivors of trafficking and sexual slavery. As teenagers during World War II, they were among hundreds of thousands of women from Asian countries and occupied territories who were seized by the Japanese military and forced to work in brothels or “comfort stations” that catered to Japanese troops. Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Hsiung’s documentary is about crimes that have long gone unpunished—and, even more painful for the surviving grandmothers, largely unacknowledged by Japan.

In a telephone interview at the end of May, Hsiung said she worked on the documentary for nearly a decade, always with the fear that her subjects might not survive. “Time was the biggest challenge in making this film,” she observed. “One of the other challenges was speaking to villagers in China, for instance, who would not understand why I wanted to make a film on this topic. There is ongoing resistance to talking about atrocities because there is some shame about how they were even allowed to happen.” The Apology does not dwell on the violent crimes, but rather on the lives of these three women since the end of the war.

Each grandmother describes her physical and psychological wounds, although very briefly and with a reticence that speaks not only to their generation, but to the lingering fear of being ostracized. Grandmother Adela, for example, who has never confessed her experiences to her family and friends, notes that after joining a support group for "comfort women," she was dropped from a yearly get-together of former colleagues. A widow, Grandmother Adela feels guilty for never having told her husband about her wartime slavery; if she had told him, she says in The Apology, he might have abandoned her and their children.

“All we know about these survivors are the facts of what they endured, but there is no proper understanding of who they are or how they survived,” Hsiung says. “People need to understand the aftermath, which is rarely focused upon. That’s where my journey started." Grandmother Gil, who endured forced sterilization, is a member of a group of protestors who regularly gather outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. As the documentary illustrates, they have erected what has become an iconic sculpture representing their struggle, that of a girl seated on a chair as the grandmothers might have been, awaiting the arrival of Japanese soldiers. Beside her is an empty chair.

That chair that once would have welcomed a soldier now appears to symbolize the anticipated “apology” from Japan. When the same sculpture was erected in Busan in January, the result was that Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea. Of all the countries from which young women were trafficked, South Korea has been the most outspoken in demanding reparations from Japan. A tenuous agreement between the two countries was reached in 2015, and Japan committed to paying reparations, but the grandmothers were critical of that response. “Because the agreement does not state Japan’s responsibility in the atrocity,” Hsiung explains, “even the government and public funds that were issued are not something that can be accepted. Japan is trying to express sympathy without taking official responsibility.”

South Korea provides its grandmothers with housing and pensions; Grandmother Gil, for instance, lives in a facility with other former "comfort women." In the course of the film, she explains that she was taken from her North Korean village when she was 13 years old. She was so distraught she was sent home, but was later seized again and sent to present-day South Korea. "When she says that she is not 'intact,' and refers to not being able to get married, she means that marriage was out of the question because she could not bear children," Hsiung explains. Grandmother Gil was never able to return home after the war because no one could cross into the Communist north. She later adopted a colleague's illegitimate child, and that boy is now a loving son, proud of his mother's activism.

Grandmother Cao, who lives alone in a small mountain village within driving distance of Beijing, also has an adopted child, a daughter who shouts at her and at first appears to be annoyed by her mother's fierce independence. She knows nothing of Grandmother Cao's past, especially not her having to abort one child and kill another at birth. Grandmother Cao did not want the children of her rapists, and she would have brought shame on her family for being an unmarried mother had she kept them. Also, her mixed-race children would have become outcasts. We soon learn that Grandmother Cao's daughter shouts because her mother is nearly deaf. "My mother is adopted, too," Hsiung says, "and she never asked why, so the past remained a secret." That bit of family history is the basis of the filmmaker's next project.

Asked about the especially warm relationship she obviously develops with Grandma Cao during the shoot, Hsiung, who speaks Mandarin, explains that in part it grew out of her learning to speak Grandmother Cao's dialect. The uncanny resemblance of Grandmother Cao's family dynamics and her own also led Hsiung to develop a closer relationship with her own grandmother when the latter was in her late 80s. "In a very sly way, she expressed jealousy because I would come back and show her the footage of the grandmothers," Hsiung says, laughing as she recalls these conversations. "With Grandmother Cao, it was cultural," she observes. "I understood the mother-daughter relationship, the duty of a daughter to her mother, an especially strong bond."

While The Apology chronicles a particular historical injustice, it also speaks to the continuing problem of trafficking and sexual violence against women. "With subject matter like this, where there is great nuance and the focus is so much around the human story versus the details of an atrocity, I believe it can only be mined by a woman," Hsiung says. "I have seen other films on this subject made by men and it’s just not the same perspective. Also, my gender provided a very practical aspect to establishing intimacy with my subjects. For instance, I was shooting in a small village, and was trusted to sleep in the same bed with Grandmother Cao when there was no other place to stay."

The Apology's revelation of the cruelty to which the grandmothers were subject during the war, and still are in some quarters in their respective societies, makes it a difficult documentary to watch. It is nevertheless one of the strongest in HRWFF's lineup this year. Because so many comfort women were unwilling to come forward or are now dead, and there was never a project to preserve their testimony as survivors of war crimes—as there was, for instance, for Holocaust survivors—Hsiung's work represents a considerable contribution to the documentation of these atrocities, and to the women who endured them.