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Korea Blog: Korea’s New Comfort-Woman Comedy “I Can Speak”

Over the past few months, a publicity blitz of the caliber usually reserved for Hollywood superhero spectacles has urged Koreans to see a I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크), a movie about a straight-laced young civil servant who reluctantly gives English lessons to an old battleaxe. Or at least that’s how it looked at first: as more detailed press and advertisements came out, people started to sense something more complicated than the Korean Harold and Maude (if that) they might have expected. Soon word spread that it actually deals with one of the most dangerously controversial issues in the country today: the plight of the “comfort women,” the young girls forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the Second World War.

Even typing that last sentence, especially the word “forced,” feels as if it might set off an international incident or two. On my first trip to Seoul I had several appointments that brought me the the vicinity of the city’s Japanese embassy, at that time a grim, prisonlike building, demolished in recent years after many denied requests for permission to do so. I knew a now-iconic bronze comfort woman statue (officially called the “Statue of Peace”) had been installed near it, but I somehow hadn’t imagined it sitting right across the street, its placid, accusatory stare pointing straight ahead. The Japanese government has requested the statue’s removal time and again, to no avail, since it appeared in 2011. Young volunteers watch over it 24 hours a day, and protests, often involving the surviving and now elderly comfort women themselves, have happened in front of the embassy each and every Wednesday for more than 25 years.

Other comfort woman monuments have appeared elsewhere in the world, including a lawsuit-drawing State of Peace clone in Glendale’s Central Park, and just this past summer five of them started riding Seoul city buses. While all this might make an observer unfamiliar with east Asian affairs wonder if the Imperial Japanese Army and its human trafficking operation remains a going concern, current Korean objections specifically target the official Japanese attitude toward those wartime exploits, even as the exploits themselves slip out of living memory. Japan, in this view, captured and enslaved somewhere between 20,000 and 400,000 unwilling young girls from not just Korea but China, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and other territories besides, yet has consistently refused to properly apologize for or even fully acknowledge its crimes.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.