I am angry about South Korean film “Spirits’ Homecoming” for two reasons. I was angered as thinking about those many women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the World War II. I was infuriated about how their dark history was clumsily and blatantly presented through rote storytelling and incompetent filmmaking. Feeling depressed and disgusted more and more, I constantly sighed to myself with resignation during the morning screening on March 1st, which happens to be the Independence Movement Day in South Korea.
During the opening scene set in 1943, we meet a young Korean country girl named Jeong-min (Kang Ha-na), and then we see how she is suddenly separated from her dear family on one day by Japanese soldiers. Shortly after her tearful separation from her parents, Jeong-min is taken to a train going to somewhere in China along with other girls, and they soon find themselves becoming ‘comfort women’, which is a Japanese euphemism for prostitutes. Supervised by a sleazy Korean guy and a lofty Japanese madam, they are kept like prisoners at a military post, and they are forced to provide whatever those nasty Japanese soldiers desire.
Meanwhile, the movie occasionally switches to the other storyline set in 1991. We meet a shy, troubled girl named Eun-kyeong (Choi Li), and her mother, who is barely recovered from a recent terrible family tragedy like her daughter, takes Eun-kyeong to a local shaman for help. The shaman takes Eun-kyeong under her wing, and it looks like Eun-kyeong finds a right place for her. During one shaman ritual, she happens to notice an old man who seems to have something to tell, and that is how she comes to find her exceptional talent she never knew before.
On one day, Eun-kyeong meets Yeong-hee (Son Sook), the shaman’s old friend who has run a traditional clothes shop for years. When Eun-kyeong touches one of the traditional charms made by Yeong-hee, she faints with several disturbing sights fueled into her mind, and, not so surprisingly, it turns out Yeong-hee has something she has kept to herself for a long time.
Of course, these two storylines are bound to converge later in the story with some revelations, but the movie is unfortunately hampered by sloppy writing and poor characterization. Both of its two stroylines feel trite and superficial without any clear sense of character development, and most of the characters in the film are too flat and bland from the beginning. Neither Jeong-min nor Eun-kyeong is interesting enough to hold our interest, and I especially dislike how they and most of the substantial female supporting characters in the film are defined only by their plights and nothing else.
As a result, they are frequently objectified instead of being depicted as human beings with flesh and blood, and that makes it all the more disconcerting to observe how the movie monotonously pushes its young actresses into degrading outrages just for squeezing anger and tear from us. For instance, I felt quite uncomfortable with the voyeuristic aspects of one particular scene; as the camera floats across several individual booths in a building, we see the girls being cruelly and brutally exploited by Japanese soldiers, and I guess we are probably supposed to witness the inhuman cruelties inflicted on these ill-fated girls, but the way the movie presents this horrible scene feels more like exploitation as the camera looks upon those atrocities one by one with a voyeuristic attitude. Although the movie is rated 15 as keeping its nudity to a minimum level (it is equivalent to PG-13, by the way), I doubt whether that is really an appropriate rating, and I am now worrying about young audiences who may come to watch the movie along with their parents for their, uh, history lesson.
In case of the Japanese soldier characters in the film, they are certainly not good guys at all, and I am fine with that, but most of them are no more than sadistic/perverted cardboard villains existing only for doing many reprehensible actions to repel and disgust us whenever that is required, and many of their violent scenes push the movie further into that seedy realm of exploitation. While there is a subplot involved with one decent Japanese solider, its development is so predictable and clichéd that I felt embarrassed during what was intended to be one of the emotional highlights in the film, and it feels quite distasteful just like other deplorable scenes.
I am sure that the director/writer Cho Jung-rae was sincere and passionate during his difficult production which was partially funded by numerous individual donations as shown during the end credits. He tried to overcome his low budget, but I did not believe much in his story or characters while constantly being distracted by many artificial or hokey elements in the film, and I came to see more of its exploitative sides instead. You will roll your eyes when it tries a certain horror movie cliché at one point, and the finale is so shamelessly sentimental and melodramatic that it feels rather insulting to the sad memories of those unfortunate women in real life.
Still feeling angry about what I experienced during my viewing, I also felt sadden by a lost opportunity in “Spirits’ Homecoming”. Most of comfort women did not return to their home, and the surviving members were forced to be silent for many years even after the liberation of Korea in 1945. Most of them are gone now, and the remaining members have not yet received any proper apology or compensation from the Japanese government while also being treated not so well by the South Korean government. These women deserve better than this – and their sad, tragic tale of injustice and suffering deserves to be told through a movie better than this well-intentioned but seriously misguided mess.