South Korean documentary film “Untold”, which was released in local theaters as “A War of Memories” early in this year, simply listens and observes. Even without any particular comment, this small but haunting documentary calmly but palpably conveys to us the old pains and sorrows from a relatively obscure side of the Vietnam War, and it often shines with compassion and empathy while indirectly demanding the justice for those numerous victims and survivors out there.
At the beginning, the documentary gives us a brief moment for providing some historical background knowledge. As the Vietnam war had got worse in the early 1960s, the American government came to get involved in the war a lot more than before due to its geopolitical strategy during that period, and the South Korean government subsequently agreed to send its troops to Vietnam as one of the key allies of the American government. During next several years, more than 350 thousand South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam, and South Korean accordingly received a considerable economic boost just like Japan did during the Korean War.
However, it was later revealed that the South Korean soldiers committed a considerable number of atrocities just like American soldiers, and it is estimated that at least 30,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed by South Korean soldiers during that period, but the South Korean government has avoided recognizing this dark and terrible past even at this point. While a number of local civil organizations have demanded the justice for those victims and survivors, the South Korean government has kept making excuses, and I must say that this is rather ironic considering that the South Korean government has kept demanding the public apology on those war crimes committed during the World War II from the Japanese government for last several decades.
Among these notable incidents of atrocities committed by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, the documentary focuses on the one which happened in a small rural town outside Đà Nẵng, Vietnam on one day of January 1968, and Nguyễn Thị Thanh, a middle-aged lady who was a little girl at that time, phlegmatically reminisces about what she witnessed during that terrible day. Her village and another village near to it happened to be targeted by a bunch of South Korean soldiers for some strategic reason, and Nguyễn still remembers vividly how many other people including all of her family members were ruthlessly eliminated just for being labeled as potential enemies. In case of her younger brother, he happened to be shot in his mouth, and we later hear some gruesome details on how he died despite her desperate efforts.
We also meet an old man who also lost many of his family members on that terrible day. Compared to Nguyễn, he has lived more peacefully with what was inflicted upon him and his family while having no particular personal grudge against South Koreans, but he still remembers the incident quite well – and how he fortunately survived at that time.
Another poignant moment in the documentary comes from a mute guy who tells us a lot via his sign language. As he silently tries to conveys to us what he saw and heard during that time, he also comes to delve into how South Korean soldiers frequently exploited many young Vietnamese women for sex during the war. Strictly forbidden to indulge in drug in contrast to American soldiers, many of South Korean soldiers usually went for sex instead, and that naturally led to the birth of thousands of Korean Vietnamese babies, who were mostly abandoned along with their unfortunate mothers at the end of the war.
Steadily maintaining its calm position as before, the documentary later shows Nguyễn’s visit to South Korea in 2015. At the South Korean parliament in Seoul, she made a public demand as supported by a local congressman, and she also came to bond with Kim Bok-dong, a prominent human rights activist who had strongly demanded the official apology from the Japanese government for what she and many other ‘comfort women’ suffered during the World War II.
Of course, her public appearance in South Korea was met with the considerable objection from those local right-wing groups including Vietnam War veteran associations, and director Lee-kil Bo-ra, whose grandfather was incidentally one of those Vietnam War veterans, presents this rather deplorable opposition with cool and detached understanding. Those Vietnam War veterans really believe that they dutifully served their country without doing anything wrong in their biased viewpoint, and I am afraid that most of them will stick to that till their death.
Anyway, Nguyễn visited South Korea again a few years later along with a fellow survivor, and she gave a testimony in front of many audiences attending a mock civil trial on the incident. Although the trial could not exert any legal obligation on the South Korean government, she tried her best as bringing back her horrible memories of the incident, and this is surely another highlight moment in the documentary despite the unnecessary and distracting inclusion of loud sound effects.
In conclusion, “Untold” is admirable for the thoughtful and sensitive handling of its important historical issues, and that is more enough to compensate for its few glaring weak points. It surely stumbles a bit at times, but you can clearly sense the passion and sincerity beneath its restrained attitude, and you will come to reflect more on its main subjects more after watching it.