Anthony Gilmore’s “Behind Forgotten Eyes” is an unendingly mesmerizing tale of cruelty, survival, and the indomitable human spirit. It is at times gut wrenching, and at other times a truly inspiration tribute to women who refuse to admit defeat, even in the face of great and impossible odds. You might think you know about the comfort women of Asia, but you don’t know the whole story until you’ve delved into the world of “Behind Forgotten Eyes”. In their own words, three Korean women tell you about the horrors they endured during World War II, dark memories that continue to haunt their dreams to this day. And you’ll be asking yourself, “In their shoes, could I ever hope to be that strong?”
Narrated by “Lost” star Yunjin Kim, “Behind Forgotten Eyes” is book ended by an animated story about a young Korean girl who is conscripted into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II. The animation is purposefully simple, but the story is not. With raging hubris backed by a series of easy victories across Asia, the Japanese Imperial Army moves on China, where the infamous Massacre of Nanking (soon to be told in various movies as the horrific event’s 70th anniversary approaches) yields more than just hundreds of thousands of dead Chinese civilians, it also convinces the Japanese brass that allowing their men to wantonly rape civilians is bad for their health. (The mass rape itself, it would appear, was of no real concern to them.) Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in the aftermath of Nanking, a growing problem that sets the gears of sexual slavery into motion.
“Behind Forgotten Eyes” is a tale of loss innocence separated into three acts. The first and longest focuses on the heart of its story — the women and the men, the victims and the victimizers, in the present recounting the same subject from very different points of views. In what is probably something of a coup, Gilmore not only found three former Korean comfort women willing to talk about their experiences (oftentimes in very graphic details), but also three Japanese men who served in the Imperial Army, and who themselves took part in the services of the comfort women.
There is a matter-of-fact tone to the way both the men and women recount their wartime lives that can only come from people who are many years removed from the events being told. And yet, as the memories return, the women soon lapse into thoughtfulness, as if they themselves are once again reliving the miseries and shame of their youth, and once more, the past no longer seems so distant. You cannot help but empathize with them, but of course, the hope is there to understand, but not really understand, ever. We can emphasize, we can try, but it is impossible to fully understand the pain, the misery, and the shame of it all. There is a reason, after all, why it took them 60 years to finally come forward with their stories. How long would it have taken you?
Interviews with Japanese professors provide a rebuke to the women’s stories, offering up plausible alternatives to the theory of comfort women, and allows the film to present a somewhat balanced debate. The former soldiers themselves have their own theories as to why they believe the comfort women were not, as the women themselves claim, sexual slaves. To their credit, their arguments do have weight, especially the price they had to pay to spend time with the women. According to one man, a single trip to the comfort stations would cost him half of his monthly wages. But while that argument would seem to hold water on face value, it is torpedoed by the fact that there were brokers, middlemen, who took the soldiers’ money, while the women themselves saw none of it.
In one of the documentary’s most chilling, and yet truly human moments, one of the former soldiers explains “The Plan”. What is “The Plan”? Simply, instead of going to the comfort stations, which could cost them most of their monthly Army wages, the men would simply go out to the villages and pick a local woman to rape, thus satisfying their sexual urges. Says the man, “‘The Plan’ was free. Anyone could join.” It is a very candid moment, spoken by a man who didn’t just participate in such horrific events, but actually came up with the idea and remains, many decades removed, proud of his own perceived ingenuity.
If there is criticism to be had with “Behind Forgotten Eyes”, it’s that the film wears its emotions on its sleeve. Director Anthony Gilmore foregoes subtlety early on when he introduces the former Japanese soldiers, now old men in Japan, with a noticeable shift in the soundtrack between the women’s and the men’s segments. The better choice would be not to use any soundtrack at all, or use the same music for both segments, thus allowing both sides to present their views on the same subject on an even ground and allow the viewer to judge for himself. Gilmore makes other false steps, including intercutting images of the women as the Japanese professors present their case against the women’s story. It’s clearly manipulation, and wholly unnecessary ones at that. Gilmore should trust that he has facts on his side, and not have resorted to such tactics.
Nevertheless, “Behind Forgotten Eyes” is an excellent introduction to the story of the comfort women of World War II. I have studied the subject in college, and thought I knew most of it, but I was wrong. If you know nothing about it at all, it will open your eyes. How, you will ask, can such barbarism exist in the 20th century? Surely, human beings were no longer capable of such horrors. Then again, the Massacre of Nanking, the concentration camps, and Pol Pot’s killing fields would convince you otherwise. Yes, it was possible, and yes, it did happen. To deny it would be to deny history, and unfortunately, human nature.
Anthony Gilmore (director) / Anthony Gilmore (screenplay)
CAST: Yunjin Kim … Narrator