Director: Ke Guo
Running Time: 99 mins
Twenty-Two is a Chinese documentary about the last surviving ‘comfort women’, those who were forced into sexual slavery by the invading Japanese army during the Second World War, and how each of their experiences has shaped their lives over the past 80 years.
Comfort women is one of, if not the most contentious issue in the sphere of East Asian relations. With China and South Korea still holding strongly antagonistic feelings towards Japan because of the issue, it’s fair to say that emotions can run high when looking at the subject. What Twenty-Two does well, however, is keep the story as distant from modern political tensions as possible, instead choosing to focus on the emotional burdens that the women who suffered the horrors at the time still carry with them today
As a result, the interviews in this film can be very emotional and heavy-going, focusing on women that have carried the burden of past trauma and, in many cases, never having even spoke about their experiences to others over the course of eight decades, meaning that their revelations in this film are depictions of a release of a very long time of suppressed and hidden feelings.
The descriptions by the women of the actions of the Japanese soldiers during the war are absolutely heartbreaking, and absolutely horrifying to think of, but it offers a sobering and clear-headed insight into a topic that is often clouded by the wider modern political context, something that I really appreciated seeing.
Another fascinating element to the film is not just about the stories of comfort women at the time of the war, but also the fact that it delves into how the women’s experiences and identity as so-called ‘comfort women’ has affected their life even after the end of the Japanese occupation.
As well as having suffered by keeping their emotions as hidden as possible, there are some heartbreaking stories about how the women have suffered prejudice over the course of their lives from other people in their local communities, particularly given their association with the Japanese during the war and the perception by some that they have been in some way tainted by such.
On the whole, the content in this film is absolutely fascinating, and a welcome insight into the film that tries hard to stay away from being too political. However, while the stories are riveting, I can’t really say that the filmmaking here is quite as impressive.
On the plus side, director Ke Guo does well to put all of the film’s emphasis on the stories being told by the women themselves, thereby strengthening the emotional value, something that’s achieved by not having a narrator. On the downside, however, I felt that the film was lacking in a certain depth and background that could have been very helpful to give you an even deeper insight into how the Japanese operated during their occupation, which would make understanding their behaviour and atrocities towards the Chinese a little easier.
Another issue with the film is that it’s really quite slow and, rather unfortunately, visually dull. Yes, it tries to bring about a serious and dramatic atmosphere by toning down the visuals and putting more focus on the interviewees, but the fact that the film moves along at such a slow pace, and features often overly long gaps between main interviews as we survey a rather grey landscape, means that it’s never always as powerful as it really should be.
Overall, however, I was impressed by Twenty-Two. Despite not being the world’s most dynamic documentary, it offers a deep, fascinating and often very heavy-going insight into an endlessly controversial topic from history, all the while doing very well to stay away from too much political bias that can often cloud the official conversations regarding reparations for comfort women, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.