Notes on the Korean film “Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향)”

Posted on July 24, 2016


Spirits_Homecoming-p01What it’s about: A film about young Korean girls who were forced by Japanese soldiers into sexual slavery in 1940s Korea, specifically during World War II. Known as “comfort women”, it’s one of the few films about the sensitive issues and experiences that these young Korean girls faced.

How the story was told: Through links from the past and the present – Young Hee from the past and Eun Kyung from the present. Eun Kyung, a young girl who was sexually abused by a stranger at her home and who witnessed the death of her father while her father tried to defend her, later on discovered that she had the potential to be a shaman. One day, while she accompanied the head shaman to have new clothes made in a shop, she chanced upon a good luck charm made from cloth. Upon touching it, she sees images from the past–of “comfort women” forcibly taken away from their homes and families by Japanese soldiers to faraway places, and then brutally abused.

Her visions take us to two particular girls, Jung Min and Young Hee. Although from different parts of Korea, they become friends and look out for each other. At the tail-end of the war, they manage to escape. But unfortunately, Jung Min was shot by a Japanese soldier. She dies, leaving Young Hee behind. Although both of them dreamed of coming home, only Young Hee was able to do so.

But, through fate, Young Hee was able to send her friend home and come to terms with her bleak experience in the past. A shaman ritual led by Eun Kyung paves the way for Jung Min’s spirit to come home.

What struck me: 

  • Development of Jung Min’s character – We get introduced to Jung Min at the beginning of the film for only a few minutes, but we pretty much get a good picture of her character. She was depicted as quite clever and a bit mischievous when she tried to get her friends’ good luck charms through a game–and succeeded. Too bad she had to return it back upon the orders of her mother. But this served as an indicator of her resilience and strength in the succeeding scenes. Her close family relationship was also depicted amply. We were given sufficient images of love that, once they get separated, we feel as tearful as them.
  • Development of Young Hee’s character – We met her first at the train going to God-knows-where with the other girls and the Japanese soldiers. She spoke with Jung Min in a light and easy manner that we just knew they’d be best friends.
  • Depiction of the lives of comfort women – They were sexually abused yes, but I liked that it was depicted in a tasteful manner, that we were able to focus on their plight, and not at the spectacle of being raped. The images we saw of torn clothes, legs, swords, and the like suggested brutality. The suggestions were powerful enough to help us understand and relate to it.
  • The female connection – There is a saying that it takes one to know one. Eun Kyung was sexually abused, and her youth and family was taken away from her, just as Jung Min experienced. Eun Kyung as the conduit for Jung Min’s homecoming (although spiritual) makes sense as they have a sort-of shared experience. Another reason why this makes sense is that females are naturally viewed as life-giving forces. Her connection to the earth and to the spirits leads to her ability to communicate to other forces by being a shaman.
  • Japanese soldiers – Why be brutal? Despite the character development of the leads, the Japanese soldiers remained flat in the scenes. There was only one Japanese soldier who was depicted as a good person, but this token character and this token goodness was insufficient to rid us of the lingering question in our minds as viewers – Why did the Japanese behave that way? What were they going through? What satisfaction did they gain from their brutal behavior?
  • Scenery – As with most Korean films, the scenery was superb and breathtaking. The lush, pure, and fresh landscapes contrasted painfully with the horrifying experiences of the young Korean girls.
  • The Philippine connection -Films exploring the plight of “comfort women” during World War 2 are rare, and this is one of those few films. Like in Korea, young girls in the Philippines were also forcibly taken as sexual slaves during this period. With a shared history like this, this film enables us Filipinos to see what might have happened to fellow Filipinos during that time – to understand it, reflect on it, and to connect with ourselves, our country, and to shared experiences, as well.

Do I recommend this?: Wholeheartedly, yes. It enriches our view of history and humanity. It is a visual feast, as well. I am even thinking of including it in my viewing list of films for my Korean Film class. I just hope that I come across a copy of it.