In January, human rights activist Kim Bok-dong passed away just shy of 93.
With her death, all but 21 identified Korean women who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese during World War II -- euphemistically called comfort women -- had passed away. At the same time, the prospect of Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration formally apologizing for the country’s past sins grow ever dimmer.
It starts with Kim’s testimony in 1992, with which she reveals that she had been victimized by the comfort women system, to the dismay of her family.
The film goes on to skim over her life to see how she was alienated by her family after the revelation, how some people came to stand by her side, the weekly Wednesday protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and how the Statue of Peace was built in front of the embassy as well as other parts of the world.
Breakthroughs like the Kono Statement in 1993 -- in which the Japanese government acknowledged the existence of comfort women and its military’s involvement -- and setbacks such as the disputed 2015 agreement between Korea and Japan that intended to completely and finally settle the issue, to which victims openly expressed their opposition and disdain, are chronicled.
It also acknowledges the people who came to Kim’s aid, from members of the nongovernmental Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan to the Peace Butterfly Network gathering of student activists fighting for the same cause.
“My Name Is Kim Bok-dong” refrains from framing the elderly woman simply as a hero or someone who should be pitied. It instead follows Kim in her fights and listens to what she has to say; from when she urged Japan to “repent and apologize before we all die!” or when she gently urged students of Japan -- most of whom had little knowledge of the matter -- not to forget, to when she held the hands of Korean girls going to a school in Japan, tearing up for concerns over discrimination they may face.
The film does not force the audience to consider Kim a hero, but the unconquerable will and incomparable heart of this tiny woman oozes out in the admirable life she leads. Although elderly, weak and ailing, she wills herself to board another flight to meet one more person outside the country, spreading the word of the horrid history of comfort women and to pressure the Abe administration.
“My hope is that the general consensus will pressure (Japan to apologize). Please go back and write the news stories,” she told the international media gathered at the 2013 unveiling of the Peace Monument of Glendale, an exact replica of the Statue of Peace in Seoul that symbolizes and honors comfort women.
“At least my mouth is alive and well. I must fight as long as I live,” she told a group of friends who expressed concern about her deteriorating health.
The documentary prompts strong emotion through the power of Kim’s life, and notable moments in her struggles.
One such moment happens after the aforementioned agreement of 2015. Confronting then-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Lim Sung-nam, she voices a teary and infuriated protest.
“Why should this happen to us? Have you been waiting for us to all die? Are you trying to kill us through this (agreement) because we won’t die? Why wouldn’t anyone even inform us? Someone should have told us,” she said, before Kim calmly told the vice minister that the government should have discussed the matter with the former comfort women in advance.
“We haven’t lived all these years just to hear the news that the governments plotted among themselves to reach a settlement,” Kim told Lim.
Although the documentary does not force viewers to tears, the sheer strength of Kim’s life and story is sure to evoke powerful emotions from anyone who sees it, evidenced by the reaction from the audience at its premiere.
It is a documentary that understands its subject matter and pays respect to a great woman who deserves it.
“My Name is Kim Bok-dong” opens in local theaters on Aug. 8.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com