'The Apology': Hot Docs Review

Courtesy of Hot Docs
This powerful documentary is alternately harrowing and uplifting, and always emotionally devastating.

Tiffany Hsiung's documentary profiles three elderly "comfort women" who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army during World War II.

They should sell Kleenex instead of popcorn at theaters showing Tiffany Hsiung's harrowing documentary profiling three elderly survivors who served as sexual slaves — better known by the horrific euphemism "comfort women" — to the Japanese army during World War II. Depicting the emotional trauma that follows them to this day as well as their indomitable spirit, The Apology is a simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, devastatingly powerful experience. Recently showcased at Toronto's Hot Docs, it's the sort of documentary that proves Oscar catnip.

More than 200,000 young girls across Asia were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army; the film includes footage of a current Japanese politician saying that sex slaves were "necessary" during the war. At one of the weekly protests in front of South Korea's Japanese embassy that have been held since 1992, men are seen hurling insults and epithets at the elderly women, calling them "whores."

The goal of the women and their supporters is to extract an apology from the Japanese government, and time is running out.

"If we all die, who are they going to apologize to?" one asks.

(Since the filming, the Japanese government has issued an apology, albeit not a particularly convincing one, since no funds have yet been committed to make restitution.)

The film profiles three such women, all in their 80s and 90s and affectionately given the moniker "Grandma." Grandma Adela of the Philippines never told her late husband and family about her past. "They would be ashamed of me, I know," she says. One of the film's most moving scenes shows the aftermath of her finally revealing her secret to her grown son, who responds with soothing tenderness. Grandma Cao of China, the eldest of the trio, is cared for by her adopted daughter. And Grandma Gil of South Korea has dedicated her life to the struggle, sacrificing her ease and health to speak at and participate in rallies. She was taken at age 13 and forced into sex slavery for several years. By the time she was finally released, she was unable to rejoin or even contact her family in the now-divided country. 

The Apology features one gut-wrenching scene after another, such as Grandma Adela nervously visiting the ruins of the former "comfort station" in which she was held prisoner, or Grandma Gil describing how she gave birth to two children in captivity, both of whom died horrible deaths.  

But the filmmaker also cannily infuses the deeply emotional proceedings with welcome doses of humor that briefly alleviate the tension, such as when one of the elderly women's sons brings her beef jerky, much to the horror of her caretaker.

But it's the fortitude of the film's subjects that truly takes your breath away. "I will keep talking until the day I die," declares Grandma Gil at one of the rallies. That she's keeping her promise was made evident by her appearance at the film's world premiere, where there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Venue: Hot Docs
Production: National Film Board of Canada
Director-screenwriter: Tiffany Hsiung
Executive producer: Anita Lee
Directors of photography: Tiffany Hsiung, Iris Ng
Editor: Mary Stephen
Composer: Lesley Barber

Not rated, 105 minutes