Movie Review: “Comfort Women” and their champion hold Japan accountable by telling “Herstory”

“Herstory” is a gripping and revealing account of a handful of Koreans’ attempt to take Japan to court to secure damages and get an apology for the war crimes they experienced under Japanese occupation before and during World War II.

Director Kyu-dong Min (“Memento Mori”) and his screenwriters, who are also three of the stars of the movie, turn a spotlight on Japanese guilt and Japanese justice for a moving and yet sometimes funny film that might glibly be described as “Erin Brockovich Goes to Nuremberg.”

Our crusading “Erin” this time is a single-mom travel agency owner whose legal troubles in the early ’90s shutter her business just as Korea experiences another wave of revulsion over what its people suffered under Japanese occupation (1910-1945).

Moon Jung-sook (Kim Hee-ae, in a sensational turn) is a mouthy, brusque and no-nonsense businesswoman who looked the other way at how a subordinate was luring foreign tourists to her Busan agency (“prostitution tours”) and got jailed for it.

She’s the mother of a rebellious teen whom all her business Women’s Association friends see as a girl she’s neglected in her relentless pursuit of businss.

She’s the one who figures their Women’s Association should set up a non-profit agency where former comfort women — Koreans forced into sex work by Japanese officialdom — and those sent to forced labor camps by the Japanese Army can report their experiences and seek justice. She’ll run it out of her temporarily-closed travel agency offices.

Two things immediately happen. They hear from women and get media attention for that. And the pushback, the shaming, from patriarchal Korean culture, explodes.

Ms. Moon finds herself in furious debate with sexist, quick-to-judge men, even cab drivers, who want this “story” and these women, whom they see as compliant sex workers and a national embarassment, to go away.

But the story gets personal when she finds herself having to hire a new housekeeper because the timid, downtrodden woman (Yong-nyeo Lee) who had been doing the job stops showing up. And visiting her, seeing her disturbed, pushing-50 adult son who beats her up, she learns that her own housekeeper was a “comfort woman,” one of the more eye-rolling euphemisms for “sex slave” in the history of Japanese deflection.

Much of Ms. Moon’s time will be spent convincing each of these women she meets to go public and agree to tell their terrible, heartbreaking stories in court.

Another piece of blowback comes from the assorted Japanese businesses and businessmen whom every businesswoman in her Women’s Association wants to keep as clients. They get outraged.

When the Japanese consulate in the city cancels its big account with Ms. Moon and the consul launches into “I can’t accept your blaming Japan without evidence” and then, right on cue, flips into Japanese victimhood, which is always punctuated with “not to mention the atomic bomb,” the viewer is entitled to get just as furious as Ms. Moon.

Busan is a port town, and she can curse like a sailor.

Having the country that started World War II, conquered much of Asia and occupied it under the most brutal conditions officially deny any responsibility for this and the uncountable war crimes committed by the country, is a bit much. Failing to accept culpability, refusing to apologize for the Rape of Nanking on down to refusing to let films about their WWII barbarism show in what is widely accepted as the most racist country in Asia, is maddening.

Ms. Moon controls her temper — she’s not shy about dropping profane tirades about what she’s learning, nor are some of the more outraged comfort women — and resolves to get Japanese lawyers and take the “damned samurai” to court.

“Herstory” features moving and vexing courtroom scenes as the aged and understandably fearful and furious “grannies” and their champion — who serves as an over-the-top translator in court — are bullied and brushed-off by the judges in Shimonoseki, the Japanese city where some of the women were shipped and where the case must be tried.

The women themselves range from damaged to defiant to mentally ill, with differing stories and degrees of effectiveness as witnesses. Their lives were broken and everything that happened afterwards bears those scars. Anything can trigger flashbacks, some of which are wrenching.

Suk Mun, who co-wrote the script, plays the most convincing witness, Seo Gwi-soon, a woman so determined to get an apology (cash settlements are secondary to most) that she’s willing to show the physical scars and obscene sex-worker tattoos visited upon her by the Japanese.

The most apalling thing about this for many American viewers is seeing the right wing outrage in Japan about this trial and the court’s dogged embrace of Japanese victimhood and Japanese determination to refuse to accept responsibility. Japanese apology culture simply won’t allow it to apologize for the worst things the people and the country ever did?

An American viewer can’t help but see this in the light of America’s hand-wringing over dropping the Atomic bomb on the refuse-to-surrender aggressors in the war, and eventual American acceptance of guilt for the justifiably-condemned racist internment of Japanese Americans during much of the war, guilt which is constantly revived and yet always reported out of context.

Although “Herstory’s” lighter moments are welcome, they can be a bit jarring in a movie whose tone is serious and sad.

But it’s eye opening and heart-breaking, beautifully-acted and another compelling argument for Japan to do what Germany did long ago, accept, admit and apologize for its many cardinal sin war crimes in the first half of the last century. And more’s the pity that it’s just another film on the long list of movies Japan doesn’t allow into the country.

Rating: unrated, war crime and sex crime subject matter, profanity

Cast: Kim Hee-ae, Suk Mun, Kim Hae-sook, Soo-jung Ye, Yong-nyeo Lee, Yeong-ih Lee and Jun-han Kim

Credits: Directed by Kyu-dong Min, scripted by Kim Hae-sook, Soo-jung Ye and Suk Mun. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 2:00

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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