Director Ke Guo

Director Ke Guo with subject

Chinese film director Ke Guo has directed two films, Thirty Two and Twenty Two, to tell stories of comfort women who were forced by Japanese soldiers to become sexual slaves during World War II. Thirty Two was started in 2012 and screened in 2014, and Twenty Two was started in 2014 and screened in 2017. The names come from the number of these women alive in China’s mainland when the filming started.

The initial idea of Thirty Two came from a story posted on China’s social media app Weibo. The story is about the son of a Chinese victim and a Japanese soldier who has faced discrimination his whole life. The film focuses on telling the story of Shaolan Wei and her son Xiuxue Luo. Shaolan Wei was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in 1944 and was forced to be a comfort woman for three months until she escaped from the comfort station in Guangxi Province. A month later, Wei found out she was pregnant and insisted on giving birth to her son Xiuxue Luo without her husband’s consent.

Xiuxue Luo, now 72, is still single. At a younger age, Luo tried to approach women living in the same village, but none of the women’s families agreed for their daughters to marry a someone they consider to be Japanese. When asked about what he would do in ten years, Luo said he would poison himself when he’s no longer able to take care of himself.

A shot from Thirty Two

Scene from Thirty Two

The story is told in a more subjective way in Thirty Two, based on Wei and Luo’s interviews with artful lighting and captured details of their life. The film also touches on their economic condition with Wei saying she could only afford getting Chinese cabbage for every meal. The usage of usage of Wei’s vocal music underneath the interview of her saying she wouldn’t want to die because the world is too beautiful to let go also a theme and made the film feel more subjective.

Two years later, when Ke Guo directed Twenty Two, he tried to make the film as objective as possible–to a degree that the audience can easily feel the sense of restraint while shooting. There are no professional settings in terms of lighting and set-up, like those in Thirty Two.

The criticism of Thirty Two is usually on its subjectivity, while the criticism of Twenty Two is just the opposite–saying it’s too “plain.”

Twenty Two includes the stories of the 22 surviving victims. It aims to increase the awareness of the existence of Chinese comfort women rather than just tell a personal story of a single victim. Guo’s editor said of the film’s interviews, “These quotes do not touch me much,”showing the director does not want this film to be focused on victims and their horror stories.

An example is that one of the 22 victims, Ailian Li, told the story during filming about her being locked in the comfort station without any food for three days. After the third day, the Japanese soldiers gave her a bunch of scallions, and she ate them all. From then on, Li started suffering from a stomach ache. Li cried while telling the story, and she admitted that she hided the details from her family for the past 70 years.

An interview like this would typically be a centerpiece of a documentary of this kind–it would probably end up in the trailer. However Guo decided to edit it out of the film. The film Twenty Two is criticized for bad lighting, unskilled shooting and plain quotes, but audiences have started to understand the reason why Guo decided to film it this way after watching an interview with the director.

Twenty Two screened in China in August, 2017 and raked in 160 hundred million yuan ($24.2 million) in box office earnings, which breaks box office records for a Chinese documentary. The director announced that he will donate the box office profit to do historical studies on comfort women.

These two films succeeded in terms of increasing awareness of this scar on Chinese history. Many Chinese Internet users commented for Luo after seeing Thirty Two, “I know you are Chinese.”

About Meiying Wu