Amid ongoing international disputes surrounding Japan’s wartime atrocities, director Guo Ke says he wanted to steer clear of sensationalism.
A documentary on the remaining Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II premiered in mainland movie theaters on Monday — the eve of the anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the International Memorial Day for Comfort Women.
The director, 36-year-old Guo Ke, began working on his film “Twenty-Two” in early 2014, when there were 22 known survivors across the country. By the film’s release date, only eight remained — though a few more have become officially registered in the meantime. However, rather than focusing on their wartime experiences, the film documents the survivors’ daily lives in their later years.
“It is inappropriate to treat this topic in a sensational way,” Guo told Sixth Tone on Tuesday. “The last gaze at this group of people must be gentle.”
Some critics commented that the film lacked drama and tension, but Guo responded that he didn’t want to dig up the survivors’ most traumatic memories. He does not see his role as that of a historian.
The issue of systemic rape by the Japanese military is well-publicized in China. “I don’t need to tell you in this film what ‘comfort women’ are,” Guo said last week in an interview with Sixth Tone’s sister publication, the Paper.
Commonly known by the term “comfort women” — a Japanese-coined euphemism — hundreds of thousands of women across Asia were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese army during World War II. According to researchers at Shanghai Normal University, approximately 200,000 Chinese women were victims, and activists estimate similar numbers from Korea. Women from the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia were also targeted.
More than 70 years after the end of the war, historians still dispute the number of victims, and the issue continues to cause conflict across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Recently, South Korean activists have installed dozens of statues commemorating the victims, drawing criticism from Japanese officials, who expected the issue to be closed when the two nations reached a bilateral agreement on a formal apology and paid compensation in 2015. Clashes have even reached Australia and the U.S., where memorials have been erected by Korean immigrant communities.
Huang Youliang, one of the protagonists in “Twenty-Two” and the last remaining Chinese survivor to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government for her suffering, died on Saturday. The 90-year-old was one of 24 Chinese victims to sue Japan in July 2001, demanding a formal apology and compensation of 24 million yen (then $212,000), but the court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have the right to sue.
Widespread public attention to the issue of wartime sex slaves in China has helped Guo make “Twenty-Two.” Though he initially struggled to finance the operation, crowdfunding came through with 1 million yuan ($150,000). The film’s closing credits name around 7,000 people who contributed to the fund.
According to EntGroup, a market research firm for the entertainment industry, the film’s box office takingson its first day reached 3 million yuan, a sum that Guo said surpassed his expectations. Guo added that any profits the movie made would go back into studies on the topic and aid for survivors and other disadvantaged groups.
— A version of this article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.