Snowy Road (눈길) – ★★★☆☆

Snowy Road (눈길)

Snowy Road (눈길)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron (김새론), the arrogant daughter of a rich man in the village, studies hard to learn the language of the hostile force and be accepted within the ranks. Poverty-stricken Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기), meanwhile, must contend herself with menial chores until the possibility of marrying out of hardship arises. Yet when the Japanese forces come looking for girls to be ‘comfort women’ – or rather, sexual slaves – financial status does not enter consideration and both youngsters are abducted into a life of horrific servitude.

In the present day Jong-boon (Kim Yeong-ok (김영옥), now an elderly woman, lives alone in a dilapidated part of town. Noticing that her teenage neighbour Eun-soo (Cho Soo-hyang (조수향) is in trouble, she takes it alone herself to help the girl and in doing so is forced to confront the traumatic experiences of her past.

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Snowy Road originally aired as a two-part television drama, yet for the purpose of a cinematic release the episodes have been edited together to create a powerful testament to the horrific abuses Korean women suffered during the Japanese occupation. Despite a large number of films and documentaries exploring the subject matter over the years, upon receiving its world premiere at Jeonju Film Festival 2015, Snowy Road left audiences sobbing at the depiction of two of Korea’s youngest and most celebrated actresses reenacting the torture so many women suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. While the film does not always escape the production shortcomings and melodramatic trappings of K-drama, Snowy Road is a particularly emotional piece that strongly resonates.

Director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra have crafted an impressive tribute to women’s suffering in both the past and present through the non-linear story, cutting between the two periods to reinforce how women’s rights have changed and how far they have yet to go. For scenes in the past, director Lee conveys the atrocities committed to Korean women through the abduction, imprisonment and abuses Yeong-ae and Jong-boon endure at the hands of the Japanese. Yet in the present a rather different set of injustices are dealt with, as elderly Jong-boon is routinely treated with disrespect while her young charge Eun-soo, alone and in need of money, becomes easy prey for wealthy middle-aged men. It is difficult to state how brave director Lee and writer Yoo are for examining the abuses of the past (Japanese men) and present (Korean men) and depicting them parallel to each other through the narrative, especially given the current highly conservative and patriarchal political climate, as well as with anti-Japanese sentiment so high following Prime Minister Abe’s denial that the incidents ever occurred. That is not to say that the crimes are in any way equal – rather, that Lee and Yoo’s bravery comes from not over-simplifying the debates put forth as purely the result of an external ‘other’, but also critically looking within contemporary Korean culture to explore the plights that effect modern Korean women. Snowy Road presents the issues well, impressively articulating that women need to stand united against injustices past and present to draw attention to their plight, rather than internalise guilt and shame.

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond through their experiences

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond due to their experiences

While Snowy Road ambitiously tackles such sensitive issues competently, the film consistently struggles to escape its origins, existing somewhere between a TV drama and film but not quite fitting into either category. Cinematography of landscapes are generally composed with skill and appear cinematic, yet when faced with more intimate moments or generating tension the budget limitations become increasingly clear. As such crucial scenes, most explicitly apparent at the internment camp where Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abused, lack the potency and sense of urgency that a film of this nature should contain.

The film also falls into cliche TV drama territory as the narrative attempts to come to a close. Melodrama has long been a feature of Korean TV and film output so it comes as little surprise that such generic devices arise in Snowy Road, however a film dealing with the subject matter of comfort women hardly requires such heavy-handed efforts to evoke tears from the audience. The story is tragic enough without additional manipulative melodramatic tropes, and their inclusion does a disservice to those who experienced such horrific trauma.

However that said, director Lee has chosen a particularly solid cast to express the issues being put forth. Kim Sae-ron is really developing into a wonderfully talented actress, and following her stellar performance in A Girl at My Door she exudes the icy arrogance of her character in Snowy Road delightfully. Playing off Kim’s cold demeanour is no small effort yet Kim Hyang-ki (Thread of Lies) is especially likeable as the young and warm-hearted Jong-boon. The actresses have established their careers with monikers such as ‘the nation’s daughters’ which undoubtedly serves to generate even more emotional resonance. The actresses in the present are somewhat shortchanged by the script yet Cho Soo-hyang, who scored Best Actress at Busan Film Festival 2014 for Wild Flowers, and Kim Yeong-ok acquit themselves admirably.

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Verdict:

Snowy Road is a highly emotional charged film about ‘comfort women’ and the horrific abuses they suffered during the Japanese occupation. Yet director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra impressively combine the sensitive subject matter with the issues faced by contemporary women, and deserve credit for it. While the film often struggles to escape its TV drama origins, Snowy Road is a powerful and resonating story on a vital topic.

★★★☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews
A former 'prostitute' throws candy at evil spirits while cursing American GIs.

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅) – ★★★☆☆

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅)

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅)

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)

Tour of Duty opens with a heartbreaking tale

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.

A former 'prostitute' throws candy at evil spirits while cursing American GIs.

A former ‘prostitute’ throws candy at evil spirits while cursing American GIs.

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.

A Korean-American orphan explores the old brothels she was forced to work in

A Korean-American orphan explores the old brothels she was forced to work in

Verdict:

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.

★★★☆☆

International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (서울국제여성영화제) Reviews