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‘Tearless’ VR project tells story of comfort women in Korea

Director and UCLA film professor Gina Kim’s latest 3D VR film “Tearless” seeks to educate viewers around the history of comfort women in South Korea, immersing viewers into the scenes themselves. (Courtesy of Cyan Films)

By Ashley Kim

Sept. 26, 2021 9:50 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Gina Kim said the titles of her films refer to the irony of how the image of bodies of comfort women were exploited by feminist activists. In fact, Kim said they were exploited by non-feminist activists.

This post was updated Oct. 9 at 11:00 p.m.

Some stories are painful past the point of tears.

In her latest virtual reality project, “Tearless,” director and UCLA film professor Gina Kim continues to tell the story of “comfort women” in Korea subjected to sexual violence at the hands of the United States military from the 1950s. Released at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, the 12-minute film is the second in what Kim said she hopes will become a trilogy, with the first of the series, “Bloodless,” released in 2017. Kim said the titles of the films also refer to the irony of how the image of bodies of comfort women were exploited by non-feminist activists.

“The whole (concept) was wrong (and) flawed. Everything was flawed because (the activists) victimized (the comfort women) one more time by exploiting their image,” Kim said. “And ever since, I was obsessed over the issue of U.S. military camptowns and how to retell the story ethically without exploiting them to such a degree.”

According to Reuters, comfort women in Korea were forced into sexual slavery during the Korean War. Thus, Kim said “Tearless” was born out of her desire to further portray the story of comfort women through a narrative that does not take advantage of the women’s experiences. She said she wanted to preserve the dignity of the victims, which proved difficult to achieve with traditional cinema as it often places a psychological distance between the audience and the material.

Instead, Kim said she landed on virtual reality as the medium that would best depict the horrors the Korean women suffered because it places the audience directly inside the scenes. She said she placed subtle props and the remains of an itinerary the women had to follow throughout the building the women were held in to imply what was happening in each room.

(Courtesy of Cyan Films)
(Courtesy of Cyan Films)

[Related: Student-made short film addresses Asian American mental health, family dynamics]

When thinking of technical matters, associate producer and editor Moa Son – who was interviewed by the Daily Bruin in Korean – said editing for VR was not much different than editing for traditional cinema. She said while there were no significant changes in technology or editing techniques, she had to shift from thinking about the film in a linear manner to thinking about it as an expansive, engulfing piece.

“In 2D, we have to consider what people can see and follow,” Son said. “But for VR, no matter how much we edit something for an audience, different people will see different aspects of the film.”

Fellow producer Zoe Sua Cho said the experimental nature of VR that allows users to play with perspective and puts the audience in a visceral place was a powerful tool appropriate for “Tearless.” She said the use of VR in the film ensured the story or character was not forced but that an environment was created and a distant space was made tangible.

The location of the film itself – the Monkey House in Dongducheon, South Korea, which was used as a medical treatment center for the comfort women – is weighed down by its history. For Cho, the act of filming in this particular space was both unsettling and heartbreaking.

“When you go into a space like that, you just feel the history that happened,” Cho said. All these horrible things … happened to these people, and I think that spirit remains. I could sense the walls, and once you experience something like that, you realize it’s really powerful to show it as it is.”

It is appalling, Son said, to realize how little people in Korea know about and acknowledge the issue of comfort women. She said though many people think of the topic of comfort women as a significant problem, people like herself who consider themselves activists were unaware of places such as the Monkey House. Consequently, this is not simply a Korean issue but a global one, Cho said, and it is important for the story to be told and heard.

(Courtesy of Cyan Films)
(Courtesy of Cyan Films)

[Related: UCLA professor, students create project to honor deaths of migrant women]

However, Kim said telling such a story is difficult when the people who live near the Monkey House refuse to acknowledge its existence, choosing to ignore the stain it brings upon their community. This response, however strong and disappointing as it may be, is something Kim said she understands given the suffering that took place inside it.

“When you start talking with (the residents), they are very happy that the entire city is being gentrified and the real estate value is going up,” Kim said. “But then when I asked about the medical prison, they (say), ‘What are you talking about? We don’t know anything like that. You must be mistaken.’”

But more than anything, “Tearless” is not about the geopolitical issues surrounding it but rather about the comfort women who have been wronged, Kim said. Though the film only features the story of comfort women in Korea, there have been comfort women of other races and nationalities whose stories Kim said should be told.

“If we can at least focus on the human rights (that were) violated with these women and acknowledge what they went through, maybe we can change things a little bit,” Kim said.

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