The sexual slavery inflicted upon the women of Korea during the Japanese occupation is an oft-discussed topic in Korean culture, with the euphemistically labelled ‘comfort women’ still striving for acknowledgement of the abuses they suffered. Less debated, however, is how the Korean government similarly forced such atrocities upon the women of the country for the pleasure of the American military, which was required in order to keep ‘peace’ on the peninsula. The hypocrisy involved has been a genuine source of frustration amongst feminists, particularly in regards to terminology – as money was exchanged for such sexual services with the American GIs, the women are often referred to as ‘prostitutes’ despite the subjugation imposed upon them.
Tour of Duty (거미의 땅), by directors Kim Dong-ryung (김동령) and Park Kyoung-tae (박경태), is a documentary that seeks to address the experiences of such ‘forgotten’ women. The film explores the lives of women forced to provide sexual services in a military town in the Uijeongbu area, and the affects of a history of sexual bondage. It is a heart-breaking and gut-wrenching viewing experience as the handful of women who still live in the now dilapidated town share their stories, and the poignancy is difficult to overstate. Directors Kim and Park do well in simply allowing their subjects to recount their traumatic pasts and their own distinct personalities, accompanied by some very attractive cinematography that exemplifies the twisted, labyrinthian landscape of not only the area but also the psychological trauma within. Yet despite such initial potency Tour of Duty loses focus and compulsion due to each director attempting to impart their own creativity on the film, resulting in an incredibly overly-long running time of two and a half hours.
Tour of Duty opens in suitably powerful style, as a now-elderly lady discusses some of the awful abuses she suffered when the military town was fully operational. The frank, almost confessional-tone of the conversation which includes the number of sexual partners and abortions she endured in her youth is beyond moving, while the resilience and resolve that developed as a result is incredible to witness. Similarly, the other women within the documentary are also highly compelling as they recount not only their tragic history, but their current life of squalor. One such woman, who became infected with a venereal disease from an African-American soldier, walks around the desolated military town throwing candies to ward off evil spirits while screaming racial obscenities about the man who gave her the affliction. Another traverses the myriad of maze-like pathways searching through refuse, lamenting the loss of her children. Directors Kim and Park employing stunning cinematography for each woman, employing different and very effective cinematic techniques for each in order to convey the disparate characters within the film. One of the most powerful images in the film comes when trying to locate the town itself on a map. As the camera moves across the Uijeongbu district, the sheer number of former military towns starkly articulates that the women featured within Tour of Duty are symbolic of a great many such stories in the area.
Yet the documentary becomes problematic when it begins to explore the life of an African-American/Korean orphan. Her history, involving childhood abduction by the authorities and forced prostitution – in which she often made to ‘service’ up to 15 soldiers a day – is no less harrowing than the other pasts being recounted. However the manner in which her story is told is highly expressionistic and completely at odds with the prior documentarian aesthetic. As such it is very clear that two directors are collaborating, with their alternative visions never managing to form a cohesive whole. The result is two films that have been edited together in a rather rudimentary fashion, which detracts from the incredible poignancy of what came before. This also gives rise to the other big issue with the film in the form of the two and a half hour running time, which is far, far too long. This is a genuine shame as had the two quite different films been edited separately both would be much stronger pieces of film, particularly the superb documentarian aesthetic in which Tour of Duty began.
Tour of Duty is a powerful documentary about the sexual abuses suffered by Korean women in an American military town in the Uijeongbu district. The stories of sexual slavery are harrowing and poignant, while the government role by both Korea and America in the atrocities, as well as the ‘forgotten’ status of the women, makes for an important and sometimes upsetting viewing experience. Yet the film loses traction as directors Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae seek to impose their quite different visual styles – the documentarian and the experimentalist – and the two disparate aesthetic styles never combine into a cohesive whole and make an overly-long running time of two and a half hours. Despite this, Tour of Duty is a potent reminder of crimes from the recent past that should not be forgotten.