BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – For 89-year-old Zhang Xiantu, there is only one way to cope with the horrors that haunt her from the time she spent in sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China.
“When I start to remember,” says Zhang. “I force myself to forget.”
Zhang is among the subjects of “Twenty Two,” a documentary by Chinese filmmaker Guo Ke that sets out to tell the story of what were the last 22 surviving “comfort women” living in China. Three have died since filming finished in mid-2014.
Estimates of the women, forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II, vary between 20,000 and 200,000.
“Twenty Two” made its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, which ended Saturday in a week where tensions between Japan and China have once again flared over wartime history.
Japan on Saturday lashed out at UNESCO’s decision to inscribe China’s “Documents on Nanking Massacre” in its Memory of the World register, describing it as “extremely regrettable” and unfair, and calling for the process to be reformed.
On Friday, the U.N. cultural and scientific body agreed to accept 47 new inscriptions, including a request by Beijing to log documents recording weekslong ordeal of mass murder and rape committed by Japanese troops after the fall of Nanking in 1937. The name of the city is now pronounced Nanjing.
Last month, China staged massive nationwide commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of its conflict with Japan and has long fought for what is calls a “sincere apology” to the victim nations.
“I did not want these women lost to history,” Guo said on the sidelines of the festival in Busan.
“No one can fully understand what they must have gone through, but I wanted to put their stories down before they are lost to history and I wanted to world to see that these women are heroes,” he said.
With the help of the Shanghai-based Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women, Guo took two years to track down the survivors and film them in their rural villages.
Some were willing to talk about the past and some refused, while age and infirmity rendered some unable to respond at all.
Among their number are those who were kidnapped from other territories occupied by Japan at the time, including the Korean Peninsula.
“These women were often brought to China from other parts of Asia and then when the war ended, they just didn’t want to go home to face their families again after what they had lived through,” Guo said.
The film shows the remains of the cells and caves in which the women were held, some of which are within walking distance of the homes where they still live.
There are those, such as 90-year-old Lin Ailan, who lives in a tiny village in southern Hainan province, who were captured while fighting against the Japanese and forced into sexual slavery.
She recalls how the Japanese suggested she marry one of them and she thought: “If I did, I could cut his throat.”
Guo set his cameras up to follow the women as they got on with everyday life, and often simply focused on their faces as they sat in silent contemplation.
At such times, the director said he hopes his audience will think about what the women must still be carrying around inside.
“Some of them talk but there is always a time when the memories become too much,” he said.
Guo first turned to the topic with the short film “Thirty Two” in 2013, after hearing of the plight of Wei Shaolan, who was enslaved at 24 and escaped captivity while pregnant and went on to raise a son fathered by a Japanese soldier.
“These women could be our grandmothers — yours and mine,” he said. “I think it is wrong for history to forget them.”
In “Twenty Two,” Guo also interviewed some of the people who have over the years taken up the women’s cause, from a South Korean photographer, to a Japanese student nurse, to a farmer-turned-lawyer who has fought on their behalf for financial compensation.
That fight, Guo said, is now over because the women have collectively decided it is no longer worth the effort.
“They want now to be left with their dignity as they try to find peace,” he said.
Censorship issues mean it will not get clearance to screen in China, but the director hopes to show the film internationally.
“It is not a topic that China likes to discuss, but I would like for the rest of the world to give these women honor and respect,” he said.
By The Japan Times