Tour of Duty (Geomi-eo Ttang): Yamagata Review

A measured and moving piece which is as factually revealing as it is visually innovative in its exploration about tragic encounters between GIs and local women in South Korea.

Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae chronicle the lives of three women impacted by the US military presence in South Korea.

The English title of South Korean directors Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae's latest documentary is a bit off beam: for a piece revolving around the legacy of the US military presence in the East Asian country, Tour of Duty might have led many a casual viewer to think of the film being about the lives of the GIs. The original Korean title serves the film better: taking after a line in the film about how these soldiers' escorts toiled but were then trampled upon like scurrying insects, "The Land of Spiders" is more adequate in summarizing the documentary's focus on three former prostitutes' struggle to overcome the pain and persecution they were subjected to because of their link-ups with American soldiers.

But it's a minor quibble – and perhaps the only one to be lob at what is a remarkable approach to the issue in both content and form. Moving away from the cinema verite style which marked their previous individual outings about towns sitting next to US military camps in South Korea, Kim (American Alley, 2008) and Park (There Is, 2007) have opted for a poetic touch which could bring their subjects' scarred psyches to the fore in a visceral way that trumps the straightforward newsreel-and-interview approach.

Having just added Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival's Special Prize to its year-long festival tour – with its first stop being Busan, followed by a Korean film showcase in Berlin and then a slot at the International Women's Film Festival back in Seoul – Tour of Duty deserves more exposure at the festival circuit, with its topic especially suited for Asian communities ruminating about the consequences of the presence of American marines in their midst, and also US film programs focusing on gender issues playing out in the canvas of international geopolitics.

With the protagonists all engaged in an active recollection of what they readily admit to be memories they would rather have suppressed, Kim and Park have tasked themselves with the apparently challenging job of shaping the ways their tales are to be told. What makes Tour of Duty an artistic tour de force is the directors' eye to look for the devilish ironies in the details. A glimpse of a brand of mineral water called DMZ, short form for the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas; a close-up of a bucket of crimson-hued water after one of the women washes up after entertaining a GI (and his Korean escort/girlfriend) with a painting – these are just the more catching examples of visual symbolism in the piece, shots which represent the filmmakers' experiments with the input (in terms of ideas and performances) from the three women themselves.

Tour of Duty begins in a more direct and conventional style with Park Myo-hyeon, an elderly bistro owner whose ailing veneer - as shown in the many injections she had to go through in one day – speaks volumes about a harrowing past which perhaps doesn't really call for visual embellishments. After going through 26 abortions, Park has had her womb removed when she was just 29; she recalls, in a talking-head interview, of actually buying "good clothes" to some of her penniless conscript clients, and her experiences of dealing with sweet-talking but spineless soldiers (including one who told her marriage awaits only if she didn't bring their son to the U.S. – she refused).

The subsequent interlude, in which a narrator laments about how pained people would turn to negative memory particles when they die and generate an outbreak of depression to the living, is perhaps a signpost of a shift in style. And the next subject, Park In-hoon, will convey her story nearly entirely on voiceovers – mostly in the shape of an imaginary letter addressed to her long-estranged (and now U.S.-based) daughters. Belying the appearance of a cuddly pensioner who exercises and goes to prayer sessions in temples, the woman's off-screen outpouring is drenched in fury: he curses the pimp who exploited her and the husband who infected her with a venereal disease, just as she works on the enthralling paintings she does to earn some money, while time away, and – perhaps – to exorcise her demons, a cathartic way of unleashing her wrath by daubing portraits with swathes of red and black.

Park In-hoon – who has worked with director Park Kyoung-tae in 2003 on Me and the Owl – would end her part by performing a rite to purge herself of the devil (and disease) inside her, by spraying alcohol and snacks on the gates and fences of abandoned U.S. military bases near where she lives. The surreal sight of her screaming fits in derelict fields is again a precursor to the even more off-kilter final segment featuring Ahn Sang-ja, a 58-year-old frizzy-haired African-American-Korean woman.

Her eccentric behavior – singing Korean Christian hymns and talking to an unseen "Annie" while washing a Stars-and-Stripes blanket by, well, trudging on it in water, or speaking in a voiceover to the mother who abandoned her – is soon revealed as some kind of a performance, as the documentary-type approach suddenly transforms into "The Story of Annie and Sera 1969-78", a film-within-a-film of staged scenes of Ahn (who worked on her lines and scenes with the two directors) walking around her village looking out for markers of its marines-infested past. As her narration speaks of a woman's search for an abused friend who was first tormented by her soldier boyfriends, and then those who locked her up in a medical institution, Ahn slowly becomes her, eventually re-enacting the lost woman's life in an empty hulk of a former dive bar. In what is her coup de grace, Ahn is seen digging into a hamburger in Park Myo-hyeon's eatery (a scene briefly shown during the latter's part) and then, in a single-take close-up, wells up in tears as she struggles to finish her meal.

By returning the third subject to the living space of the first, the two directors are seemingly hinting at the ceaseless and cyclical nature of their suffering. And as Park In-hoon wanders the back alleys of her town, walking past still-operating sleazy joints called "Las Vegas" or "Players Club" and the U.S. soldiers coming out of them, the struggle certainly continues – something which Tour of Duty illustrates well, both in its narrative and the creative technical way of molding it to captivate, with hardly a longueur in its 2-1/2 hour running time.
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival
Production Company: Cinema DAL
Directors: Kim Dong-ryung, Park Kyoung-tae
Cast: Park Myo-hyeon, Park In-soon, Ahn Sung-ja, Park Mi-hyun (voice)
Producer: An Bo-young
Screenplay: Kim Dong-ryung, Park Kyoung-tae
Cinematographers: Yoon Jong-ho, Kim Dong-ryung, Park Kyoung-tae, Jang Ji-nam
Editors: Kim Dong-ryung, Park Kyoung-tae, Mun Jun-young
Sound: Sound Way
International Sales: Cinema DAL
In Korean and English
150 minutes