Emotional tale of China’s 22 surviving wartime sex slaves becomes box office hit

The movie will make its debut in Australia and the United States later this week

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 11:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 8:52pm

When the topic was deemed politically sensitive for China’s movie-goers, Guo Ke, the director of Twenty Two, a documentary about “comfort women”, said he did not expect his film to be financially successful.

But the work surprised Guo, by going on to become China’s highest grossing documentary.

“When I was making this film, many people told me it is very sensitive and the authorities would regard the group of comfort women as the nation’s humiliation,” Guo Ke told the South China Morning Post in an interview. “A lot of my friends warned that it could not pass the scrutiny of the national broadcast watchdog.”

But the film did receive permission from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to become the first documentary on the topic ever publicly released in China.

About six million people have flocked to mainland cinemas to watch the movie since it made its debut on August 14, International Comfort Women Memorial Day. It has raked in more than 160 million yuan (US$24.4 million), becoming the sole documentary to amass ticket income greater than 100 million yuan in mainland China.

“I didn’t expect so many people are interested in this film. I am very content with the result so far,” said Guo, adding that he hadn’t had any expectations for the film’s box office proceeds.

Film on China’s last surviving ‘comfort women’ debuts at Busan Film Festival

The 95-minute-long film is about the everyday life of 22 women who were the only remaining surviving Chinese comfort women in 2014 when the film was made. They represent some of the estimated 200,000 victims from China, South Korea and other countries in the region who had been forced to work in Japanese military brothels as sex slaves during the second world war.

Just eight of the women filmed in the documentary are alive now.

Guo said it was difficult for him to raise the three million yuan he needed to produce the film because its politically sensitive subject matter had investors worried it would be banned in China. “Investors were also not confident that the public would care about these women,” he said.

The high box office, though, showed that the topic is close to the mainland public’s heart – and that a film on this subject filled a need. “The problem is that there is no such a film in the past for people to watch to express their concern,” Guo said.

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Twenty Two is Guo’s second documentary on comfort women. His last film, Thirty Two, produced in 2012, concerned 32 victims who were then still alive, and one victim in particular, Wei Shaolan and her half-Japanese son. The film was not approved to be publicly screened in China due to its 43-minute length which was too short for it to be released as a standard film in cinemas. It was aired for university students in China, Guo said.

The short won the Best Cinematography award at the 2013 Chinese Academy Awards of Documentary Film and was nominated for prizes at the 2014 American Documentary Film Festival. Wei, now 97, also appeared in Twenty Two.

Besides production cost struggles, this latest film was plagued by a lack of marketing and distribution funds, prompting Guo to launch a one-million-yuan crowdfunding campaign on the internet. More than 30,000 people supported the online fund drive.

In the first few days following the film’s debut, just 1.5 per cent of national screening time was allocated for it. About a week later, as the movie gained popularity among the public, the proportion rose to over 10 per cent.

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The director said making films about living comfort women is a race against time, as they are all over 90 years old.

“So it’s urgent to record them and let the public know of these people [through films],” Guo said.

His film devotes little time to these old women’s recollections of what happened to them during the second world war; instead, it sheds light on how they live their lives at present.

Guo said his biggest challenge while shooting the film was determining how to confront these women and deciding from which angle to unfold their stories.

The experiences of comfort women have been recorded in numerous historical materials, so it is not necessary to repeat what has already been well-documented, Guo said.

“Letting the grannies recount their painful past would lead them to weep and also lead the audience to weep,” he said. “But I wonder: is it really necessary to hurt them again?”

He said he had to ask these elderly women questions about their tragic roles in wartime history, but most opted not to answer. “Then it’s fine for me,” Guo said. “I respect their choice.”

He said he felt relaxed during the shooting since he felt no pressure to dig out the victims’ bitter memories.

“We regard them as ordinary old grannies. Female staff of my crew team [looked after] these grannies every night during the days when we were there.”

Reconciliation cannot wait for the ‘comfort women’ victims of wartime Japan

Twenty Two received a nomination at the Pusan International Film Festival two years ago.

Guo said in the next few months, he would identify a “trustworthy and transparent” institution to look after the profits from the film. He will also negotiate with mainland institutions and experts specialising in research on comfort women regarding how to spend the money.

At the end of this year, he will revisit the families of the 22 women highlighted in the film, including the families of those who have passed away, and send them some money. China’s comfort women mainly lived in the rural areas of Guangxi, Hainan, Shanxi, Hubei and Heilongjiang.

The documentary will make its overseas debut on Thursday in Australia and New Zealand and will be released in the US and Canada on Friday, with Chinese and English subtitles.