In “The Apology”, Tiffany Hsiung reveals a profound and horrible injustice: during World War II, the Japanese army forced over 200,000 girls and young women into sexual slavery. These women were known as “comfort women” or “grandmas”. This documentary tells the story of three of these women as they struggle to find justice, understanding, and peace decades after their terrible ordeals. While each woman’s fight takes its own form, all three share a need to heal long-open wounds.
Each woman is from a different country. Grandma Gil lives in Seoul and participates in protests demanding an official apology from the Japanese embassy. Grandma Cao lives in Yu Xian, China and is one of the oldest living grandmas. Grandma Adela lives in Roxas City, Philippines, and participates in a local support group for comfort women called the Lolas Kampaneras.
This is a very difficult film to watch and thin about. The heartache and tragedy builds upon itself as each detail of these women’s hardships is revealed. The women both break our hearts and uplift us, often at the same time. We see footage of a current Japanese politician saying that sex slaves were “necessary” during the war.
Grandma Adela of the Philippines never told her late husband and family about her past. “They would be ashamed of me, I know,” she says. One of the film’s most moving scenes shows the aftermath of her finally revealing her secret to her grown son, who responds with soothing tenderness. We see one gut-wrenching scene after another. We especially see this when Grandma Adela nervously visits the ruins of the former “comfort station” in which she was held prisoner, or when Grandma Gil describes how she gave birth to two children in captivity, both of whom died horrible deaths.
We see that respect for these elders doesn’t extend to the officials of the Japanese government; it continues to deny their existence almost 70 years after marking them with physical and emotional scars. Hsiung empathetically gives the women a forum to speak and they relieve themselves of the stories they hid from everyone.
The sense of release and the swelling feeling of catharsis are overwhelming. We are reminded to respect the rights and experiences of survivors. In effect, we just need to listen as “The Apology” gives voice to women who refuse to be silent.
Tiffany Hsiung takes an unconventional approach to horror as she challenges our collective urge to reduce history to a litany of horrific crimes and unknowable victims. Over 70 years later, the grandmothers are decades into a grassroots campaign demanding a formal apology from the Japanese government. As we hear the stories of the three survivors and the women become three-dimensional human that were bombarded with horrors and we hear about these horrors from the women themselves.
Grandma Gil leads weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy, and goes on lecture tours and activist missions around the world. She is not well and her ailments stem from her abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers. She has trouble waking up in the mornings and getting out of bed, but is pushed forward by a sense of duty and a responsibility to the other grandmothers, dead and alive. There is an ever-pressing sense that “time is running out.” She questions why war exists, and wonders about the young girl she was before she was abducted, and the life she could have lived.
Grandma Gil’s pain is immediate and difficult to bear. Perhaps it’s just coming to terms with the idea that, if there is some sort of justice to be had, she is unlikely to live long enough to see it. The documentary intersects personal and political issues since the grandmothers’ stories are both innately political and endlessly politicized. Perhaps the takeaway here is that, unfortunately, telling the stories of women is a fantastic way to approach history, through endless back alleys of trauma and pain. Crimes against women are often buried under layers of denial and social stigma. These injustices consistently fall through the cracks, leaving the burden of memory not on the offending governments or armies but on the victims themselves.
The mission of the film, then, is not just to help find justice for the grandmas but also to collect invaluable testimonies that will serve as indictments.