Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: HERSTORY Foregrounds Sensational Cast in Best Comfort Women Tale Yet (by a Margin)

By Pierce Conran

One of the most sensitive issues in Korean society over the past few years has the been the acknowledgement of the plight of the Korean comfort women that were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during World War II. Naturally, stories of these women have quickly found their way to the big screen, but while they've experienced widespread success, the films themselves have for the most part been terribly manipulative. Min Kyu-dong's Herstory is the latest addition to the genre, but unlike last year's calculating but enormously popular I Can Speak, this powerful tale proves to the most affecting and sincere of the bunch, by a country mile.

In 1991, Ms. Moon is a successful travel agency entrepreneur in Busan who encounters trouble with the law. While laying low for a few months she sets up a support center for comfort women, but when she discovers that her very own housekeeper Jung-gil was one of them, she puts up her own money to finance a legal case between a group of local comfort women against the Japanese government. Over the course of six years they seek reparations and an apology from a global power that refuses to recognize them.

After genres such as romantic drama (All for Love), horror (Memento Mori), romcom (All About My Wife) and erotic period thriller (The Treacherous), director Min, a versatile filmmaker reminiscent of the journeymen auteurs of bygone Hollywood such as Raoul Walsh, tackles the comfort women drama. The endgame, an emotional courtroom confrontation, is a given and Min doesn't attempt to hide this. Instead, he focuses on the journey there by painting the various characters affected by colonial history in more varied shades, as women with flaws and weaknesses. He also carves a more rational and detailed route to the tearful finale which affords it more of an impact. To achieve his aims, Min does what he does best, which is to trust his story and his cast, while he works behind the scenes to refine the edges, always staying out of sight.

Beyond being a great film, Herstory is that rare beast in Korean cinema, a commercial film fronted almost exclusively by women, and a formidable group of them at that. Leading the cast as the gutsy Ms. Moon is Kim Hee-ae, who appeared in The Vanished earlier this year but is seldom seen on the big screen. As a single mother who excels at her business and is not defined by her homelife, Ms. Moon is a refreshing lead protagonist and one confidently played by Kim, who is at turns analytical and empathetic.

Leading the comfort women is the veteran Kim Hae-sook (The Handmaiden) who builds from a stoic housekeeper into a dynamo in the witness chair who forcefully voices the pain and anger of all the women who suffered at the hands of the Japanese army. More veterans fill out the ranks of the plaintiffs, including a standout Ye Soo-jung. Normally relegated to parts as a doddering or aphasic grandmother (such as in Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds), Ye shows off her skills as a cool and vivacious older woman who adds a lively spark to the group.

Surprisingly, Herstory was a cataclysmic failure at the box office and given how the genre has fared in the last few years it's not easy to offer a pat post-mortem. Perhaps the film failed to connect as it approached its' subject in a more direct and less schmaltzy fashion. Another potential reason for its downfall, and I may be reaching with this, was the combination of the film's positive portrayal of certain Japanese characters with the current political climate, as the film was released a few weeks into a massive anti-refugee scandal that has seen racism pour out of every age, gender and political group in the country. This was the same issue that led to the quick demise of Kim Jee-woon's Illang: The Wolf Brigade as that film's co-star Jung Woo-sung was crucified by netizens for supporting the refugees, who then sunk the film's ratings across online portals.

The finest film from an accomplished director since his sensational debut Memento Mori (which he co-directed with Kim Tae-yong), Herstory is an adroitly staged, compelling and rich exploration of an important contemporary issue. It's also a wonderful showcase for the deep ranks of talented women performers in Korea's film industry. Financial disappointment aside, one hopes that more commercial films could follow suit and give them roles deserving of their talent.


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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The idea that Herstory did poorly at the box office because of latent racism is ludicrous. The movie's a legal procedural aimed at a highbrow audience. It was so poorly promoted I'm surprised it made as much at the box office as it did. In today's market these kinds of movies make most of their money from on demand services anyway.

    Blaming Illang's failure on racial politics is just as outlandish. The movie simply wasn't very good. Although if I was going to single out a political reason I'd say the way it sympathetically depicts a paramilitary police force opening fire on protestors was the more likely culprit than some thing the actor said.