An important, little known story of World War II Era Atrocity!
Behind Forgotten Eyes is another documentary about World War II horrors. As in many of these, we find the dominating army, convinced of its racial superiority, rounding up certain citizens of their conquered lands, putting them in trucks and train cars and shipping them to camps where the nightmares become real.
But you haven't seen this one before.
Behind Forgotten Eyes focuses on Korea during the Japanese Occupation, when the well disciplined army used rape as a large part of its weaponry against civilians. When this naturally led to widespread venereal infection, the Japanese Government opened "Comfort Stations". Brothels. Brothels filled at first by Japanese prostitutes, then by other nationalities. Then, as the front line became congested with troops, these comfort stations began to house forcibly conscripted locals. Young girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five, forced into sexual slavery to the Japanese army. And it went on for years.
It's a story that remained silent for decades. Behind Forgotten Eyes is helping to break that silence and raise the awareness of this very real war crime. But this isn't merely a well-meaning propaganda piece. This documentary is excellent, unconventional, challenging, shocking, appalling, nearly impossible to sit through but much less possible to turn away from.
As narrated by the enchanting Kim Yoon-Jin, Producer/ Director Anthony Gilmore's first feature film focuses primarily on the stories of three of the estimated 200,000 women who endured this slave trade. Their tales are as moving as they are disturbing and shocking. This is made even more true by the fact that Gilmore knows when to edit and when not to edit his subjects. These old ladies come off not as interviewees or eye witnesses, but as real, tangible human beings who have lived through indescribable horrors. Listening to these women is like listening to your grandmother telling old stories. In this case the kind that could make any self-respecting listener ball their fists and close their eyes.
In addition to the accounts of these ladies (Park, Moon and Kang), Gilmore uses archival footage of the era, still photographs and other spliced-in material that serves to enhance his piece and make it more real. He also pulls out some of the more interesting tricks of the modern documentary trade, such as the partially animated slide show for maximum impact. Still, he never over-uses these tools to the point that they feel like his gimmick. Instead Gilmore allows the story to tell itself.
Strangely, the story does tell itself, in part using fully animated cartoon segments to visually chronicle some of the events of these ladies' early lives. While the use of animated characters in a documentary may sound, on paper, to be an odd choice, it's striking to see how well this is pulled off. First, these segments are done in a very classical Asian look, not like modern Anime, but evoking an ancient wood-carving motif. Second, there is an effort to portray these elements as ancient, adding the appearance of dust and scratches to enhance the feel and mood of the story. Lastly, these pieces are handled very tastefully and without humor or cuteness. It's a dichotomy to say the least, but a dichotomy that works and serves only to make an engrossing film even richer. It's a credit to Gilmore that these varied parts fit together so well, but credit is equally due to editor Ryan Seale, whose skill with the cuts makes for a surprisingly seamless flow amid the vastly differing pieces.
Behind Forgotten Eyes also does its best to be thorough in its coverage. The research goes far beyond the memories of these three tragic figures, down into the history of the pre-war era, interviewing experts and scholars and perfectly matting in the archival footage at all the right places.
Nor does Gilmore allow this film to come off as one-sided. As with Darwin's Nightmare, it's clear that Behind Forgotten Eyes does indeed pick a side here. Gilmore and his crew do appear to be firmly in the corner of the victims. That said, there is a real effort to show balance here. Three Japanese soldiers are given their own chances to speak, adding to both the horror and the pathos of the documentary. It's a reminder of the complexities of humanity that real remorse can be seen here. But... enough remorse? No. Behind Forgotten Eyes also gives the soap box to Japanese Government Officials and Professors who either deny the facts or attempt to reduce their impacts greatly.
But in spite of the pain, painted on virtually every frame in this film, Behind Forgotten Eyes is not devoid of hope. The struggle to come forward, the struggle to go forward and the struggle to recover (impossible as it may seem) is tempered only by the struggle, not for revenge, but for restitution. Yes, there is anger here, and well deserved. Yes there are scars both visible and invisible. Just when it seems impossible to bear, however, Kim's voice points us to possibilities for healing and shows us that while the struggle may be continuing, and that time is running out for these victims, none of them are going it alone.
Gilmore, Kim, producer Alex Ferrari and the good folks at The Enigma Factory, Nameless Films and many other groups and activists are working hard to make sure that these people aren't alone and that their stories are heard. Behind Forgotten Eyes is a film that must be seen by very open eyes. It's a story that mustn't fall on deaf ears. Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Behind Forgotten Eyes. Nobody knows what it's like. However, this human story is now out there to be heard. The story is passionate and painful. The film is moving and excellent. Hear it. See it. Never forget.
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