Three Korean comfort women photographed in 1944 while being interrogated. The Charles B. Wang Center recently screened “I Can Speak,” a film exploring the lives of comfort women in Japan-occupied Korea. PUBLIC DOMAIN

In celebration of Women’s History Month this March, the Stony Brook Center for Korean Studies showed the 2017 Korean comedy-drama “I Can Speak,” on March 8. The film delves into the status of comfort women from the era of occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army. 

The movie follows the story of an elderly woman and a young civil service officer. They form a close bond when the woman begins taking English lessons from him. Eventually, the civil service officer learns her true reason for learning English: she was soon to go to the United States to testify against Japan as a surviving comfort woman.

“I Can Speak,” directed by Kim Hyun-Seok, won a number of awards, including Best Actress (Mun-hee Na) and Best Director at the Blue Dragon Film Awards in South Korea.

“This is a comedy that touches our heart,” Heejeong Sohn, senior lecturer in the department of Asian and Asian American studies and associate director of the Center for Korean Studies, said. “It makes us laugh and cry without compromising the message they want to deliver.”

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Japanese brothels, which had existed in the Japanese military since 1932, expanded following the Rape of Nanking, which occurred during Japan’s attempted occupation of the Republic of China. During World War II, over 200,000 women from across the Asia Pacific were forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers. Many surviving women ended up socially ostracized, and due to the mass destruction of Japanese records, their stories were ultimately buried. In the 1980s, women began to speak out, and in 2007 House Resolution 121 (HR 121) was passed to request a formal apology from the Japanese government for the abuse from the Japanese army.

Prior to HR 121, Japan provided an outlet for private donations to victims through the Asian Women’s Fund. The initiative halted operations in 2007, after many Korean activists demanded the Japanese government take more responsibility.

South Korean activists have pushed for more recognition of comfort women with memorial statues placed in 50 different public spaces across the country. Jessica Hartt, a senior linguistics major, visited the statues when she studied abroad.

“People in Korea do care about it… during the winter time, we would always see people put scarves around them,” Hartt said. “Around the world, it’s not something that’s talked about, but I feel like it’s something that’s really important.”

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Ophelia Liang, a senior biology major, had traveled alongside Hartt.

“What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t often talked about,” Liang said. “Not a lot of people know about comfort women.”

Recently, there has been a huge movement in South Korea to strengthen the voices of the survivors. An additional statue was added to Seoul buses in 2017. Prior to the Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to renew the discussion regarding a 2015 agreement, which included an $8 million donation and a vague apology from Japan.

The #MeToo movement, which has had massive traction in the U.S., was recently adopted and reimagined by South Korea. The country protests for stricter laws on sexual harassment and assault, and the movement has begun to target many prominent figures. In response, the Korean government announced it would combat sexual assault by increasing maximum prison sentences and statute of limitations. The movement has taken a dramatic turn, however, with the recent death of South Korean actor Jo Min-ki, who committed suicide following a number of rape and sexual assault allegations.

Although South Korea currently holds a low ranking in terms of gender equality, the #MeToo movement has provided a voice for many women silenced by oppressive gender roles.

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“I Can Speak” sheds light on the status of women in Asia. Paired with recent events and discussions on gender inequality, the movie is a strong representation of South Korea’s socio-cultural transformation.

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