Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향) was a film that I knew was going to upset me and so I put off viewing it until the very last moment because contrary to what my friends think, I don’t enjoy bawling my eyes out. And there was no doubt in my mind that this film about comfort women, the young girls that the Japanese forced into sexual slavery, was going to be extremely emotional and hard to watch. While the film focused on a small group of Korean comfort women (although girls would be more accurate as they were all in the early to mid-teens), the Japanese forced that fate on thousands of girls from several Asian countries and their story deserves to be told. Yes, this was a feature film, not a documentary but its story still has value.
The film has two timelines – the primary one is set in 1943 during WWII which focuses on comfort women through the eyes of 14-year-old Jung-min, played by Kang Ha Na (강하나) and 15-year-old Young-hee, played by Seo Mi Ji (서미지); and the secondary one which is set in 1997 and focuses on shamanism and the efforts to try to bring home the spirits of those comfort women who didn’t survive to that they can finally rest in peace. It’s based on the true story of Kang Il Chul.
This was a film that I expected to make me cry and leave me feeling drained afterwards. And it did – both in the abject brutality that the majority of the Imperial Japanese soldiers showed to the girls and in the casual yet vicious disregard and apathy the young Korean office workers showed in the modern setting. In its ability to show such negative aspects of humanity, the film certainly didn’t disappoint.
But Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향) also surprised me by showing some positive (yes, positive) examples of humanity. Small kindnesses. Loyalty. And even one example of a soldier who was human and decent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a brutal film to watch yet it also shows hope and compassion, especially in how the girls treated each other.
Speaking of the emotion, it permeates the film but some scenes seem to bleed it despite their on-the-surface normality. The scene with the grandmother in the tub, when the camera traveled across the sea, or the butterflies – out of context, none of those should cause tears to stream down your face but they will. Because context is everything in this film. For any of you who tend to tear up during sad films, bring lots of tissues as you’ll need them.
I’ll be the first to admit that I let myself be blinded by the emotion in the film (and my tears) so much that I was blindsided by who the surviving old woman turned out to be. However, even the emotion of the film and its topic couldn’t stop some of the issues from being apparent. There was a one-dimensionality to many of the characters, especially the villains but also the older shaman, that detracted from the story a little.
But while there were a few scenes that were slightly disjointed for me, on the whole, despite the two timelines, there was a good flow to the film and with the timelines, in large part because of the acting. The acting, especially by the young female leads in both timelines, definitely raised the level of the film – and the emotion. In fact, it was the three young girls (the two in the older timeline and one in the newer one who played the wounded apprentice shaman) that truly brought the film to life through their vulnerability. It was so easy to connect with the girls emotionally that it was impossible not to feel their pain. I know I cry easily (and a lot) while watching films but tears literally streamed down my face for pretty much the entire film and by the time the final scene arrived, I was sobbing. There was just so much emotion.
The subject matter of the film – comfort women – will mean that there will be those who will have a hard time watching the film and it definitely won’t be for everyone. It certainly was hard watching the girls’ first rape, among many other scenes. However, it’s a topic that needs more exposure and discussion.
And while the modern timeline with its focus on shamanism is certainly less visually difficult to watch, there is still a lot of emotional resonance to it. I do wonder though, if Western audiences unfamiliar with Korean shamanism will find it as relevant.
While it didn’t hit all the notes I would have liked – most of the Japanese were a little two one-dimensionally evil for my liking – it was still able to tell a powerful story about something horrific without too much unnecessary graphic content. Is it hard to watch? Yes, sometimes it really, really is. But it didn’t glorify the violence or graphic sexual nature of the crimes and there were other elements of the film that balanced the horror to a degree. Most important, it’s a part of history that more people need to be aware of.
Have you seen Spirits’ Homecoming? What did you think of it?