Film Review: Twenty Two

The title refers to the number of surviving Chinese “comfort women,” whose plight and need for recognition and retribution is the subject of this compassionate, inescapably moving doc.
Specialty Releases

If ever a misnomer existed, it surely was the term “comfort women,” which refers to the thousands of Korean, Chinese and Filipino women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in World War II, as human reward to their soldiers. Often deceived by the promise of legitimate work, they were torn from their families, some of them practically children themselves, abducted, raped, brutally beaten, medically experimented upon and murdered. After the war, it got better, one supposes, but most of the survivors had to harbor this horrendous experience in their hearts for fear of judgment and ostracization by their own people.

A few courageous souls, then old ladies, stepped forward to demand recognition and retribution from the Japanese government, and were basically treated by both Japan and their own countries as pesky, uncomfortable reminders of an unseemly past. It became director Guo Ke‘s particular mission to find the surviving Chinese comfort women—22 in all, of an estimated 200,000—and try to get their stories as well as some true “comfort” and justice for them.

His film is beautifully respectful and often plain beautiful, as he ferrets out these ladies—many of them having since passed away before this film’s U.S. release—in the idyllic, out-of-time, rural settings to which they retired. (The ruins of a former comfort women station in a now-sylvan setting ironically look almost poetic.) Unlike recent feature films based on this most shameful moment in history, there is no attempt to exhume the nightmare in gory detail. Instead, Guo‘s patient camera records these slow-moving, wrinkled wraiths, going about their daily lives with family or in senior-citizen residences, making delicious-looking soup or commenting about the new stray cat in their neighborhood. 

There is no attempt to force recollection, and the unspeakable memories come haltingly from aged lips: One recalls her mother being killed and thrown into a river by “Japanese devils” who always seemed to have moustaches. There is thankfully no exploitational milking here—the unsaid makes the unthinkable savagery of what they experienced all the more vivid and horrifying—and Guo does not press them when his subjects cut their interviews short, not wanting to talk—or think—of such matters any futher.  Eighty-nine-year-old Zhang Xiantu puts it most clearly: “When I start to remember, I force myself to forget.”

Guo admits his failure in that, having gotten these women to open up at last, again there was no real sympathetic response from institutions approached, or even their own people. His subjects were again judged and shunned, further robbing them of what dignity remained to them, he feels. Some comfort women became pregnant, and one half-Japanese, half-Chinese old man, the issue of such a happenstance, says in the film that he was never married for that reason, and his full Chinese half-brother threatened to kill him for his Japanese blood.

However, the fact remains that Twenty Two grossed over $25 million in two and a half weeks in Mainland China after its opening, with a groundswell of social-media attention from prominent people in the film industry. So perhaps the time has at last arrived for these tragic victims of another, much less publicized or remembered Holocaust to receive the attention and support those few of them who are still alive so deserve.

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