Images of horror are often indelible. When we think about horror, we remember gory movie scenes or even still moments—an actress covered in blood, a mouth paralyzed mid-scream. Historical tragedies have their own visual references—footage of violence, photographs of victims—that have been pored over, forgotten, and subsequently rediscovered. Of course, images lose their potency with time, and become faded as witnesses die and disappear. Remembering the story behind the photograph becomes tantamount, since reducing history to a collection of snapshots risks a tragic loss of nuance, depth, and truth.
The Apology, a documentary by director Tiffany Hsiung, takes an unconventional approach to horror, privileging complex personal histories over arresting images and challenging our collective urge to reduce history to a litany of horrific crimes and unknowable victims. Through Hsiung’s work, we are all but ordered to grapple with something far messier and less contained than an image or a timeline. Instead, we are thrown into the after: lives that did not end when forced to endure unimaginable pain.
The Apology follows three “grandmothers”—Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines—former “comfort women” who were kidnapped by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and forced into sex slavery. These are just three women out of the 200,000 girls and young women who were imprisoned in “comfort stations,” raped and abused. Over 70 years later, the grandmothers are decades into a grassroots campaign demanding a formal apology from the Japanese government. But more than a campaign or a movement, The Apology tells the stories of three survivors. And in doing so, it proposes that these three-dimensional human beings are so much more than the horrors that have been inflicted on them. It also shows that stories of great crimes, great wars, and unspeakable horrors are not discrete or containable. They continue after the photographer leaves and the headlines stop. In other words, The Apology challenges the look, scope, and feel of horror—how we chronicle and comprehend it.
Director Tiffany Hsiung told The Daily Beast that she decided to tell the grandmothers’ stories chiefly out of frustration. “I felt frustrated by the fact that they had to come to a room full of strangers and, you know, having to tell their story in a way where it almost felt unsafe for them,” she recalls. “And speak about atrocities and only that, and not ever really knowing who they are as people.” She remembers thinking to herself, “I know that this does not define you, but that’s all you’re sharing”—which gave her the idea to give these grandmothers the space to tell their own stories, stories that Hsiung insists “need to be told.”
Giving these three women the opportunity to tell their own stories is no narrative gimmick. Still, it’s miraculous to watch where the natural flow of confession takes the film—from Korea to the Philippines to China and back again, from World War II to the Military Demarcation Line, from notions of victim-blaming and shame to female solidarity to issues of governmental incompetence and injustice. In South Korea, Gil Won-Ok aka Grandma Gil leads weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy, and goes on lecture tours and activist missions around the world. Throughout the documentary, we circle around and eventually zoom in on the ailments—many of them stemming from her abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers—that make these travels physically as well as emotionally exhausting. She has trouble waking up in the mornings and getting out of bed, but is pushed forward by a sense of duty and a responsibility to the other grandmothers, dead and alive. There is an ever-pressing sense, as Hsiung explains, that “time is running out.” Or as Grandma Gil herself wonders in the film, “If we all die, who are they going to apologize to?”
During one particularly moving testimony abroad, Grandma Gil questions why war exists, and wonders about the young girl she was before she was abducted, and the life she could have lived. Further coloring Gil’s wistful pacifism is the fact that she was taken from North Korea and never returned. When she finally managed to make her way back to South Korea after the war, the border between the two countries had been closed, meaning that Gil would never reunite with her home or her family again. It’s difficult to fathom how so many systems outside of Grandma Gil’s control—political tensions that led to war, to war crimes, to borders and fences—conspired to change one woman’s life so irreparably. It’s difficult, but necessary, to reckon with the human consequences of history—the bodies that are swept up in war and divided by borders.
Instead of healing all wounds, it often seems that time has made Grandma Gil’s pain somehow more immediate and difficult to bear. Perhaps it’s just coming to terms with the idea that, if there is some sort of justice to be had, she is unlikely to live long enough to see it. At the end of her speech, which Gil is too overcome with emotion to read out loud, she imagines being freed from her body like a butterfly, flying over borders happy and weightless. Is it the beauty of the vision that makes Grandma Gil cry, or the impossibility of it?
“For Grandma Gil,” Hsiung notes, “My question was always, ‘Who is this woman behind this raised fist in the air?’ We’re all cheering, we’re all there at that demonstration, and she’s there leading the demonstration, but who is she, and how much does this take out of her? What is the world like for this woman on the road at the age of 86?” Fittingly, before we learn what exactly happened to Gil, and the full extent of that physical and psychological trauma, we know about her sense of humor and her appetite—we watch tender interactions with her family and sing-alongs in cars, trains, and airports. Like Hsiung herself, we get to know these grandmothers by traveling with them, listening to them, and even just sitting with them in silence.
Hsiung acknowledges that her documentary intersects personal and political issues. While she doesn’t feature an abundance of facts and statistics about WWII—“Google has a great way of providing that information,” she jokes—the grandmothers’ stories are both innately political and endlessly politicized. Perhaps the takeaway here is that, unfortunately, telling the stories of women is a fantastic way to approach history, through endless back alleys of trauma and pain. Crimes against women, as The Apology shows, are often buried under layers of denial and social stigma. These injustices consistently fall through the cracks, leaving the burden of memory not on the offending governments or armies but on the victims themselves.
The mission of the film, then, is twofold: not just to do its complicated and rich subjects justice, but to collect invaluable testimonies that also serve as indictments. Hsiung explains, “Often when we talk about stories of sexual violence, the focus is on the actual act of the violence, and not on the aftermath, and how a woman has been able to survive and draw strength and been able to try and overcome in some capacity and try to live…Knowing those six, seven decades after the war, that I believe is the only way to truly understand the impact that the atrocities had on these women but also, and more importantly, to look at them in a different light—not just as survivors but as heroes and pillars for the next generation.”
The process of telling these stories in a holistic, humane way (with a predominately female crew!) makes being captured on camera an exercise in healing, as opposed to a new form of unwelcome exposure. The Apology is a testament to the hard work of survival—survival as a daily act, a constant challenge, and a communal undertaking. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film show women drawing strength from one another, whether it’s a group of tearful female students thanking a grandmother for her testimony, or virtual messages sent back and forth between survivors. “While I was filming, I would bring footage back not just from other grandmothers, but I would bring footage back from young people in Toronto,” Hsiung recalls. “It’s the grandmothers’ reaction to seeing the people that are resonating with their story.” And this support system didn’t end when Hsiung stopped filming. “To this day,” she adds, “I still bring back audience responses. At every screening I ask the audience to say, ‘Thank you grandmother, we love you.’ I’ve done that now all around the world…Rarely do subjects of documentaries get that power and strength from the people that are watching, and that’s always been something incredibly important to me.”
While The Apology is a victory in visibility for women who have been routinely dismissed and erased from history, there is no easy fix for the suffering that the grandmothers have endured or their decades-long struggle. The idea of the apology itself is so small—a speech or formal statement meant to redress an unfathomable tangle of atrocity, shame, injustice, mental and physical pain. More than anything, the elusive apology is a symbol of the grandmothers’ righteous fight, which is at once futile, necessary, painful, healing, and, most importantly, never-ending. “The war hasn’t ended for these grandmothers,” Hsiung muses. “They’re still living in an unending war. Grandma Gil has never been able to go back home…War does not just end.”