Entrevue avec les cinéastes de Tour of Duty

Tour of Duty, porté par la force des témoignages qui y sont mis en scène, revient sur l’histoire des liaisons forcées entres coréennes et soldats américains durant la guerre. Les cinéastes Dong-Ryung Kim et Kyoung-tae Park ont répondu à quelques questions.

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Your film deals with a very taboo subject, namely the exploitation and abuse of Korean women by the US army during the war. How did you first learn about these facts? Are they well-known in Korea?

When we first started making films, we thought it was a taboo subject, but now we understand it’s more a case of « obliteration ». But somehow it is still a taboo in Korean society, because everyone knows about it, but doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. After the Korean war (1950-53), there were U.S. military camp towns and « yankee princesses » (name given to Korean prostitutes servicing members of the U.S. military) all over South Korea: U.S. soldiers and women were often seen on the streets, they were actual neighbors. Mixed blood children were classmates in the 60’s and 70’s. After the war, the U.S. military installed more than 200 facilities in South Korea and the devastating war made people gather around the military bases to earn money and build new towns. At first it was a typical post-war scenario, hungry people trying to earn money by all means. Then, during the long dictatorship in the 60’s and 70’s, the government controlled businesses by imposing taxes, regulating clubs, enlisting women for medical checkups for political and economic reasons. Women who slipped into this business for whatever reason couldn’t find a way out, a way to go back, because of the debt system used by the pimps since the japanese colonial period. Women and their children were despised on the streets, but at the same time they were praised by the government to be « patriots » who earned money for the state. They had to undergo enormous pain, and of course it left trauma, but they were just considered prostitutes who served white and black aliens – which was also a taboo in Korean culture at the time. Therefore, the film deals with the experience of three women, from the Japanese colonial rule (Park Myo-yeon), up until the explosion of economic growth before the 1988 Seoul olympics (Ahn Sung-ja). Especially after the 80’s, the wealth spread out to most South Koreans, engulfing the past in a big black hole of oblivion. So nowadays, the older generation vividly remembers these scenes but don’t want to recall it, and the younger generation doesn’t even know the word « Yankee princess ».

I remember reading one novel when I was in high school, about the life of a « yankee princess », but my first real encounter took place after I graduated from film school in 2004. I was offered a short term translating job at an NGO, situated in the middle of a camp town. First I was struck by the space, as if time had stopped in the middle of the 70’s. It is at this NGO that I met Park Kyoung-tae, co-director of Tour of Duty, who had been working there since 2000. We ended up colleagues for few years, writing reports about the conditions of women, conducting in depth interviews, etc. So it was natural that as future film directors we decided to make films about this space and these people.

How did you decide on the three main characters who testify in the film?

After finishing our previous films, we were very tired, exhausted, and feeling guilty for « observing » people’s miserable lives. We believed documentary film should « record real life », and we followed the esthetics of « direct cinema ». We put a lot of effort into revealing the real lives of people, trying to unveil their souls and agonies rather than exploit them as subjects, which television always does. However these uncomfortable feelings never left us. And filming people with enormous trauma in a « direct » way didn’t seem to be right or enough. So we started to look more closer to the space itself, and document the ruins which were soon to disappear due to the building of a new apartment complex. It was a kind of archival work, discovering forgotten towns around Northern Kyounggi Province. And the result was stunning, because almost every small town of Northern Kyounggi turned out to be a camp town! And at that time the former protagonist of Park Kyoung-tae’s « There Is » (2005), a furious Amerasian, died lonely in his small room. His death changed everything, and we realized that the space itself reveals nothing, unless it is related to a memory.

We had known the three main protagonists of « Tour of Duty » (Park Myo-yeon, Park In-soon, and Ahn Sung-ja) for over 10 years. Park In-soon was the protagonist for Park Kyoung-tae’s debut film, « Me and the Owl » (2002), and Park Myo-yeon was the ex-president of the association of camp town women, who had recently witnessed a lot of silent deaths. She decided to talk in front of the camera for the sake of her companions, as a human being and a woman, for their dignity and honor. Ahn Sung-ja, who occasionally appeared in TV documentaries depicting her miserable life to the public, knew that the TV documentary form was the accomplice between what the spectator wants to see and the subject who wants something from that exchange.

So these three women finally appearing in our film was kind of inevitable, because they were the ones who were ready for our camera, to do something with us in a different way.

Each testimonial has a very specific style of mise-en-scène. What were the reasons behind those stylistic choices? Were they decided upon prior to the interviews, or did you figure out each specific style as the shoot progressed?

While we were shooting, we were not even sure whether we could combine these three women into one film. It was a painstaking process which required a lot of patience. Park Myo-eon had a specific attitude, in that she wanted to confess something in front of the camera before she died, and she knew very well that behind the camera there are Korean audiences, especially officials of the government. It took us some time to wait until she was really prepared to let her story out, because it was painful for her to recall the past. And we also knew that we couldn’t ask her to recount it 2 or 3 more times. She naturally chose to speak in front of camera, taking an interview form.

Park In-soon, who does not know how to write and read, is a very down-to-earth person. She prefers to « act » rather than « talk ». She also has a habit of  murmuring things all day long. But when you spend time with her you soon notice that these murmurs are a kind of « self-conversation » very much related to her past.

Ahn Sung-ja also has a very unique way of telling stories. Her story is like a puzzle, full of strange names, places and feelings. When you listen to her life story, it seems like a fairy tale: beautiful and cruel at the same time. Interviews or just observing her daily life was not the right method, so we decided to delve into her memory, full of fantasies and sad moments. As the shooting progressed, we found a way to connect these three women by traveling with the ghosts who wanders around the space.

What was the reception of the film in Korea?

Unfortunately the film hasn’t reached many spectators thus far. It has screened at several film festivals in Korea, but hasn’t had the chance of being commercially released. Maybe there are too many urgent and miserable things going on these days in South Korea, like the crisis in democracy. I guess the documentary genre is enormously affected by that political issue, because the spectators these days want to see something that can change the world, or at least expose the « truth ». These expectations only contribute to reinforce the myth of documentary: the more REAL it seems, the closer it is to the « vérité ».