What does it mean to apologise? It is, undoubtedly, one of the more complex human acts, which requires a combination of sincerity, acceptance of self-criticism and submission. It is the latter that makes this act oh-so difficult for many of us—how to admit that we committed wrongs, erred but now are (crucially) willing to change our ways moving forward. Of course, in a Canadian context, saying sorry bears less weight in popular consciousness, having become something of a joke; a stereotype of a pleasant passivity that marks our nation’s characters. But for many around the globe, including Indigenous peoples here at home—the verbal self-recognition of a state’s crimes has far less to do with passing pleasantries. It has to do with not being erased from history.
This is the starting point of Tiffany Hsiung’s debut documentary, The Apology. (Read the POV review of The Apology here.) During the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945), the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 200,000 women across Asia into sexual slavery. Removed from their villages, often in their pre-teen years they were called “comfort women” (this is a translation of the Japanese euphemism “inafu”). It was a chilling and devastating practice, and, as Sarah Soh notes in her book The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (2008), a perfect storm of political and systematic abuses. As Soh writes, the comfort women were “victims of the mutually reinforcing convergence of sexism, classism, racism, colonialism, militarism and capitalist imperialism.” In military brothels (called “comfort stations”), they were left at the disposal of Japanese soldiers. They were raped, abused, impregnated, sterilised and, when the war ended, not even accounted for. The comfort women were erased and the Japanese government chose not to recognise its crimes.
Some 60 years later, Hsiung searched out the surviving women, lovingly called “grandmas,” who are now in their 80s and 90s. Hsiung’s project was by no means an easy one. She had to negotiate the cultural and historical differences of the comfort women, shooting in China, the Philippines and South Korea. Time was also not on her side, as while the women are still fighting for their dignity, they only have (or in some cases had) a few years left. Following grandmothers Adele, Gil and Cao, The Apology starts as an activist documentary, but becomes a rumination on the philosophy of living, and, perhaps most poignantly, a moving case study in what the form of documentary does best: give voice to the marginalised.
Aside from the logistical and emotional challenges of documenting the grandmothers’ later-life years, The Apology faced the challenge of representing the un-representable: rape. Women are often the victims of sexual crimes during wartime, but too frequently their plights go unrecorded. Put in simple terms, it comes down to the question of depiction. Images of ravaged bodies and bombed buildings are shown on the nightly news and circulated in the media, offered up as visual proof of war. But rape, in a world where any sexual content is highly moderated (if not outright censored) cannot be shown. In this way, it becomes an invisible crime.
Hsiung navigates this challenge—not a small one in a visual medium—in a poetic manner. The documentary opens with a drone shot of the countryside. Using on-screen text, the history of the comfort women is briefly but painfully explained. The contrast of the words against the beauty of the misty green landscape sets up the expectation that these fields, these villages, these towns and this continent have born witness to crimes that are unimaginable. The scars are not immediately apparent, but can be understood by those who are willing to see and listen.
‘Listen’ is the key word: as rape “cannot” be shown, this means that documenting the crime of sexual assault comes down to oral culture: one must hear the voices of the so-called comfort women. Hsiung achieves this—though nothing in the documentary ever feels calculated—by sitting with the women and letting them speak. The documentary takes its time with them, as Hsiung does, and introduces each as a vivid character: Gil, the feisty and avid protestor; Adele, a kind woman who attends support groups for comfort women; Coa, who is half-deaf and bent with age but still chops her own wood. In each case, Hsiung eventually layers their voices with present-day footage of the now-abandoned, decaying brothels. The results are the visual evidence that human nature demands.
While this tactic would never be accepted in a court of law (or by the Japanese government), Hsiung’s style is far from manipulative. Instead, it highlights the help that these women—and arguably all women—need in these circumstances. When it comes to sexual assault, women’s voices are rarely listened to, let alone respected or held as pillars of authority. (See, for instance, the recent legal battle against Jian Ghomeshi cases of “he-said-she-said” favour the former and the media trips over themselves to shame the victims and not the perpetrator.)
Another issue that Hsiung raises is that admitting to being sexually assaulted can carry a lot of shame, meaning women are victimised two times over: first through the assault and then socially. All of the grandmas speak of this to Hsiung. (In a move that suggests transparency and a deep level of trust with her subjects, Hsiung often includes her off-camera voice during interviews, and occasionally appears in shots.) As Adele says of the choice to come forward as a comfort woman: “To be a hero? When in fact you’re a social outcast?” For this reason, she didn’t tell anyone what had happened to her for years, just as Coa didn’t tell her family what she had gone through. This social silencing meant that, as one grandmother says, even after the war ended, “liberation never came.”
While Hsiung balances the women’s stories against the complex history of the Asia-Pacific War, the story continues to unspool in the present: for 60 years the Japanese government has refused to admit—let alone apologize for—the wartime practice of military brothels. (In 2016, Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan’s deputy foreign ministry, suggested “comfort women” were a fabrication, as “there were no documents confirming that the Japanese government or army forced comfort women into sexual servitude.”) Because of this, women like Gil protest outside of the Japanese embassy and demand to be heard. Even today, their presence causes a disturbance, as Hsiung films right-wing nationalist protestors across the street from the grandmas shouting, “Go home, Korean whore!” The documentary builds to a rush to get Adele a visa to join the protests, but she passes away before she can make the trip. And before there is a public apology for the comfort women.
And what of this apology? At the time the film had wrapped, one had not come. Finally, in December of 2015, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, offered his “most sincere apologies.” He did not, however, offer them himself, but in a statement that was read by his foreign minister in Seoul. Which brings us back to the art of the apology. In Plato’s work on the matter, he imagines Socrates’ final speech before being put to death; in this oration, the philosopher refuses to say sorry. The title of this work, The Apology, has now taken on a somewhat ironic turn, pulling from ancient Greek “apologia,” meaning defense. The backhanded way in which Japan finally offered their regrets jives with this meaning too, keeping their culpability at arm’s length. [Update: since the publication of this article in July, Abe has stated that Japan will not issue letters of apology to victims.]
And even if this act were sincere, would the apology be too late? Justin Bieber wondered about this in a chart-topping song, the popularity of it alone suggesting that this quandry is one that deeply resonates. For the grandmothers, the answer is no. There is no expiry date on their pain, and, having suffered not just during the war but for years after, demanding a moment of discomfort from the Japanese government seems at the very least to be fair. But receiving an apology for the women is not solely about vindication or gleaning retribution. It comes down to healing. As Gil says, “Will the wound go away if you apologise? No. That scar will remain. But my heart can heal.”
While each woman deals with her past in a different way, it is Gil, the one that could be most clearly called an activist, who takes centre stage in the film’s final chapter. A nonagenarian, she continues to speak at organisations, in schools and on campuses to ensure that her history does not die with her. At one point during a speech, either from emotion, exhaustion or a combination of both, she cannot go on. Her trusted helper steps in to finish her sentence, saying Gil has found strength in “knowing we are not alone.” This is the victory that the women have gained in their lifetimes: the knowledge that, in support groups or from their own children, they are loved, recognised and heard.