Review: Byun Young-joo, “The Murmuring”


This August 15 marks the 66th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is given different names in the countries involved. In the U.S., it known as Victory over Japan Day; in Korea, it is called Liberation Day, since Japan’s surrender meant the end of colonial rule. Among the many continuing legacies of the war is the plight of the “comfort women,” an estimated 200,000 women (some as young as twelve) from Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries who were kidnapped or otherwise tricked into sexual slavery, forced to service Japanese soldiers. The misery for these women did not end with the war; they continued to be victimized by both sides of the conflict – by Japan’s continued refusal to this day to give an official apology or offer adequate compensation to survivors, and by the shame placed upon them by their home societies, forcing them to spend decades living in isolation and shamed silence. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that former comfort women began to come forward and tell their stories, and more importantly, to petition the Japanese government for reparations. The vast majority of comfort women (80-90 percent) were taken from Korea, a colony of Japan during the war, and their stories form the basis of Byun Young-joo’s extraordinary documentary trilogy on the comfort women of Korea: The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own Breathing (1999). Taken together, this trilogy (called the “Low Voice” trilogy, after the Korean titles of the first two installments) is one of the monumental works of world documentary, entirely the equal of such films as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity. Much like Shoah, Byun eschews the normal clichéd methods of documentary filmmaking, such as archival footage, dramatizations, and expert talking heads, concentrating on contemporary footage of her subjects bearing witness to a horrific period of their own lives and their country’s history. The one time Byun breaks with this is in a brief pictorial montage showing Japanese atrocities in China, which serves to remind us that the comfort women’s experiences existed in a larger context of Japanese war crimes, and was equally as brutal and deserving of close examination.

Byun’s first documentary, A Woman-Being in Asia (1993), dealt with the sex tourism industry in Asia, focusing on prostitution on Jeju Island. Byun and her crew were mostly dissatisfied with the results, feeling they had come into it with too much an imposed point a view, and a subsequent ambivalence toward the subject matter that filtered down to how they dealt with their interviewees. However, Byun serendipitously stumbled upon the subject of her next film when one of the prostitutes she interviewed revealed that her deceased mother was a comfort woman who became a prostitute after the war to pay for her own mother’s operation. Her decision to pursue this subject resulted in this trilogy.



The subtitle of The Murmuring, released in the 50th anniversary year of the end of World War II, is “A Woman-Being in Asia: The Second Report,” signaling that this new film was both a follow-up to and an improvement on her first film. Largely influenced by Japanese documentary pioneer Shinsuke Ogawa, Byun radically changed her methods of relating to her subjects in this film. Much of the film takes place in a house known as “Nanum,” or “House of Sharing,” a group home in Haehwa-dong, Seoul supported by Buddhist groups, where a number of former comfort women reside. Byun spent a few months before filming simply living with the women, until she gained their trust and they felt ready to tell their stories on camera. The stories they tell are truly heartbreaking; the women were taken at a very young age, and were commonly tricked with the promise of employment. One woman speaks of trying to kill herself on the way back home from Japan, because of her shame and knowing that she was effectively ruined for marriage; in terms of the rigid Confucian patriarchy that prevailed then, the fact that she served Japanese soldiers against her will mattered little. Most of the women living in the house suffer from numerous physical ailments, much of it resulting from their sexual enslavement; many returned with venereal disease and have scars on their stomachs from surgery. One woman talks about her wish to die, to end her continued suffering. Byun films these women in simple, functional camera setups, allowing them the visual and temporal space to tell their stories. Some confess their shame about telling these stories, which is quite understandable considering that it was only a few years before, in 1991, that Kim Hak-soon was the first comfort woman to publicly tell her story on television, making it possible for others to come forward.



Byun also documents the weekly protests organized by The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which still continue today. Since January 2002, they have stood outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday at noon, year in and year out, regardless of the weather, to make several demands of the Japanese government. They insist that Japan make an official apology and acknowledge their responsibility for the plight of comfort women; give whole-hearted compensation to the women and their relatives; erect a monument to the women who died (about 70 percent died before the end of the war); and include this history in Japanese textbooks. To this day, none of these demands have been met, and therefore the protests continue. Byun shows in the film that Korean governments are also partly responsible for this state of affairs, since for many years they were very reluctant to press the issue, loath to jeopardize trade agreements and other compacts with Japan. Byun also traveled to China to interview Ha Koon-ja and Hong Gang Lim, two comfort women who were never repatriated to Korea, effectively exiled because of their shame. These interviews provide some of the most powerful moments of the film: Ha tearfully recounts being forced to serve as many as twenty soldiers per day, and Hong, starkly framed so that her face floats in the darkness, relates the brutal story of having her vagina mutilated because of soldiers’ complaints that, because she was taken so young, that she was “too small.” This section of the film also contains the footage of other Japanese war atrocities.



However, as sad and horrific as the stories these women tell are, this is only one part of Byun’s film. The Murmuring is also a very inspiring portrait of the women’s resiliency in the face of their hardship. They are still able to laugh and enjoy other people’s company, and most importantly, to sing. There are many scenes in the film of the women singing the liberation and love songs of their youth, both in the house and at the weekly protests. This speaks to an inner spirit that the horrors of war cannot extinguish. The women also express themselves through painting, which also gives them an outlet to cope with their memories and to heal their damaged psyches. The Murmuringis a rich and revealing film, quite literally so in the film’s last shot, as the camera pans across the naked torso of one of the women. Byun’s film is a beautifully constructed vessel allowing the “low voices” of these women to speak out fully and tell the collective story of this tragic period of history, a story that has yet to reach a fully satisfying conclusion.