Tiffany Hsiung was part of a coterie of documentary filmmakers on a 2010 trip to China, where the topic at hand was atrocities committed during World War II. But when she learned of one particular brutality, it resonated so loudly and clearly with her that she committed the next seven years of her life to making a documentary about it. The issue: when the Japanese Imperial Army kidnapped over 200,000 women—many of them under the age of 18—and forcibly used them as what were euphemistically called “comfort women”, known more accurately as sex slaves. The film: The Apology.
Hsiung has a few moments to talk, since she is on a train from her home of Toronto to Ottawa, where her film will be screened at parliament. “I am excited the film has been so well received,” she says. “And to show it on Parliament Hill, the centre of Canada’s political operations, is fantastic.” She began the project “as a two-year plan, trying to get it done. But after only two visits to China, it became very clear this would take much more time. It wound up being nearly a seven-year odyssey.”
Though this is her first full-length film, it is an assured piece of work—evocative, raw at times, always true to its purpose. “The focus is not really on the atrocity itself,” Hsiung says. “It is about the human spirit. So the aftermath is more important than the event. All around the world today, similar things are going on. So I wanted to bring forward the idea that we, as citizens in the contemporary world, all play roles in it. How do we behave? How do we begin to really start talking?” Her passion for this is apparent in her words, certainly, but is also palpable onscreen.
There are three people central to the film—the only three remaining survivors—Grandma Gil, from Korea, who has taken the case to the United Nations; Grandma Cao, from China; and Grandma Adela, from the Philippines. “Grandma Gil is central, really, given what she has been up against, trying to receive justice, and trying to tell the world what really happened,” says Hsiung. “There were always huge obstacles for the survivors.” One shocking example comes very early in the film. “We placed that scene there so early because it is so revealing, so visceral—the resistance, the hatred, even, these women have faced,” explains Hsiung. The scene shows hostile gatherings of people, many of them too young to really have any direct knowledge of what happened, hurling scorn and dreadful abuse upon these elderly women. “It was hard to edit that,” Hsiung recalls. “Because you can hear me yelling back at those people, usually louder than them!”
Hsiung originally had a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project, but, with slightly more than 100 hours of raw footage complete, she pitched the National Film Board, where producer Anita Lee immediately saw the value. It was then decided that an all-woman, all-Asian crew would be best, and Hsiung says, simply, “The film needed to have the crew it had. Editor Mary Stephen was just amazing. She is a legend for a reason. And Anita Lee was a powerful guide through it all.” Lee stands as The Apology’s executive producer.
Not coincidentally, Hsiung took courage from the Grandmas, and ended many years of silence about her own ordeal: she and her sister were sexually assaulted when they were very young. “Holding secrets like this inside is a terrible thing,” she says. “But coming out with it is extremely difficult, too. I am hoping other women, of any age, might find some courage from the Grandmas, just as I found it.” Hsiung will be in Vancouver to personally present her film, which plays at Vancity Theatre on Dec. 3 and 4 in correlation with the Vancouver International Film Festival. It is riveting, expertly rendered, and powerfully moving.
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