Can a movie dealing with a serious topic like wartime sexual slavery become a box office hit? Many people had doubts until director Kim Hyun-seok’s film “I Can Speak” was released in 2017. The movie achieved commercial and critical success, attracting 3.3 million viewers and receiving praise from the press and critics.
By the end of last year, Na Moon-hee possessed most of the awards that a Korean actress can possibly receive in one year. They included the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Leading Actress, the Korean Association of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, the Director’s Cut Award for Best Actress, the Korean Film Producers Association Award for Best Actress, the Amnesty International Special Award, and the Woman in Film of the Year Award. Twenty-six journalists and critics of Cine 21 also bestowed her with the movie magazine’s Actress of the Year title.
Throughout her 57-year-long career, the now 77-year-old Na has mainly played supporting roles but she received the greatest acclaim for her lead role in “I Can Speak.” The unanimous appreciation and accolades heaped on the veteran actress reflected not only the film community’s recognition of her outstanding performance but also of the movie itself.
Waiting for Apology
In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 121 on colonial and wartime sexual slavery committed by the Japanese military. It urged Japan to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ brutal exploitation of young women as sex slaves. “I Can Speak” is based on the true story of Lee Yong-su, one of the victims who testified at a House hearing leading up to the vote on the resolution.
From the early 1930s until the end of World War II, the Japanese armed forces entrapped young women and teenage girls, predominantly from occupied territories including Korea, China, the Philippines and several other Southeast Asian countries, as sex slaves, euphemistically referred to as “comfort women” in Japanese. Through coercion, kidnapping and deception, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women were transported to a network of “comfort stations,” or military brothels, established throughout Japan and its occupied areas. The majority of the victims were Korean, including girls who were barely teenagers. As of January this year, only 31 survivors were known to be alive in Korea. While this unresolved historical issue remains a major cause of conflict between Korea and Japan, the survivors await Japan’s unalloyed admission of legal responsibility for its past wrongdoings.
“I Can Speak” was developed from a prize-winning work in a screenplay contest conducted by the CJ Culture Foundation in 2014, under the auspices of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Casting and production proved difficult as young stars refused roles, fearing they would fall out of favor with Japanese fans. Filming did not begin in earnest until Lee Je-hoon, who had made a name for himself in Lee Young-ju’s movie “Architecture 101,” joined the cast at the beginning of 2017.
Na Moon-hee read the screenplay two years earlier and was deeply moved by it. Her movie character is Na Ok-boon, an elderly woman who has submitted more than 8,000 complaints to her district office. Nothing is too small or too large for her relentless efforts to correct wrongs; her complaints range from insufficient lighting in remote alleys to the redevelopment of a commercial building. Many officials and neighbors refer to the nettlesome old woman as “Goblin Granny.” Lee Je-hoon plays Park Min-jae, a junior government officer who accommodates Na’s incessant complaints. Eventually, they bridge the wide age gap between them and become friends, and Na insists Park teach her English, without revealing her motive. Park refuses and avoids Na for some time but later relents on condition that she cook his younger brother’s dinner.
When Korea was an agrarian society, a custom called pumasievolved. Pum means effort or energy that goes into performing a certain task, and asi means working for someone in return for work the other person will perform at a later time. Pumasi was adopted for all sorts of work, from farming to household chores and child care. It compensated for a community’s lack of human resources and served as the foundation that knitted residents together. In “I Can Speak,” the collaboration between Na and Park is a modern reinterpretation of this long-standing tradition of mutual aid.
Engulfed by Remorse
Pumasi done on a larger scale is called dure. It involves groups collectively engaging in mutual assistance. In that sense, the merchants of the market in “I Can Speak” are the third main characters of the movie. Na, who runs a clothing alteration shop, forms a sisterly relationship with other female merchants, but her identity as a survivor of the “comfort women” system remains unknown in her community until halfway into the movie. Up to that point, the movie focuses on the minutiae in the everyday lives of the old woman and the district officials and merchants. Nobody is fond of Na because she strolls around, prying into everyone’s business. However, when they learn of her past and the reason she wants to learn English, everyone, including Park, feels remorseful. They are sorry for having misunderstood and disliked her out of sheer ignorance, and for her having suffered so much.
The movie poses several poignant questions. In a complex modern society, how much do we understand each other? How much of our misunderstanding stems from our ignorance? How quick are we to judge others we barely know? And how easily does hatred spread on the Internet, where voices have no face? The film strikes a chord in the audience by embedding the unresolved historical issue of “comfort women” in universal problems of contemporary society.
The sorrow and regret of many characters in the movie are expressed in the form of apologies. Park, the merchants, Ok-boon’s younger brother who had tried to erase her past from his memory, and many U.S. congressmen and women all convey their sincere apologies. Yet, it is first and foremost the country of the perpetrators who owe the survivors the long-sought acknowledgement of guilt and legal responsibility. At the congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Na beseeches the Japanese government, as if to speak on the victims’ behalf: “‘I am sorry,’ is that so hard?”
The actual obstacle to speaking up was persuading herself to revisit her horrible, painful memories of being exploited as a sex slave. It took 60 years for heroine Ok-boon to finally say, “Yes, I can speak.”
Relevance for Today
Shim Jae-myung, CEO of Myung Films, which produced the movie, wrote in a column in the monthly magazine GQ, “I take pride in the fact that the movie did not adopt the cinematic perspective of simply portraying violence and pain but successfully depicted an independent woman who stood up for herself and made changes.” In other words, the core message of the film is not to have someone speak for you but to speak up yourself - to not bury and forget old wounds but to open them up and seek empathy.
In October 2017, renowned Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was ousted from the movie industry following allegations of sexual assault and harassment from many actresses. From women in the Middle East to Hollywood celebrities, so many women are forced to remain silent just because they are women. Their silence is embedded in our languages, societies and institutions, in our workplaces, and in our everyday environments. “I Can Speak” obviously suggests that we need to break the silence like Granny Ok-boon, enlighten the ignorant and draw support from those who can empathize with another human being; only then can we be saved from the pain locked away in silence.