Tormented by her past for over 40 years, former WWII prisoner Francesca decides to break her silence and tell the truth about her life as a ‘comfort woman’ in Seayoon Jeong’s Breaking The Silence.
Between 1932 and 1945 the Imperial Japanese army forced tens of thousands of women from the Far East and other occupied countries to become military prostitutes known as ‘Comfort Women’. Some victims were coerced, while the vast majority were abducted, stolen, and taken against their will to places called ‘comfort stations’ brothels, in which women and girls as young as 14 were sexually enslaved, abused, and murdered by the Japanese army during WWII.
Breaking The Silence opens in the year 1981 with a very accurate shot of an early 80’s neighbourhood. We are introduced to Francesca Keahola, a former ‘comfort woman’ with her head in the toilet bowl being violently sick. Opening her bathroom cabinet, we are greeted by the sight of shelves full of pill bottles and, as she brushes a scar on the side of her face, we realise she is not a well person and is suffering from many things, both physically and mentally.
The opening scenes are cleverly built and well written by Jeong and co-writer Sandra Philip to set the audience up with the well-known and often used movie technique called the framing device, where the narrator of the piece will tell their story to another character. A New York Times reporter introduces herself at the door and Francesca begins to tell her story. The script is strong throughout the film, with the flashbacks of Francesca’s life full of satisfying drama and suspense. There are many uncomfortable moments during the short, one such moment arrives with a vicious attack on a hospital ward. Based on a real event, the scene is so shockingly brutal and finite in its execution that it leaves an indelible impression on the viewer and feels all too real. It’s a terrific scene that is uncomfortable to watch and makes a mockery of the film’s budgetary constraints.
The editing by Meagan Costello and Frank Reynolds is also worthy of note, there are two time periods in the film that we see and both are distinctly filmed; the flashbacks take place in black and white, while the modern-day portions of the story are in full colour, it isn’t difficult to keep track of the plot. However, the editors deserve a lot of praise because the cuts between time frames and countries are done so smoothly that each scene remains clear and full of tension.
More adulation needs to go the way of director Jeong too because there is a huge cast and crew list to contend with and her ability to harness them all shows she is a genuine talent. The performances she derives from the entire cast are excellent. Grace Shen’s older Francesca is a beacon of stoicism and virtue throughout the short, while Grace Chim’s young Francesca not only brings out the innocence of a young idealistic girl wanting to do her best but also has the ability to sell her descent towards the darkness. There is a genuine commitment on show from all the actors, even those in tiny supporting roles, and it all adds up to a top-class ensemble of truth across the board.
Breaking The Silence is a very powerful and moving dramatic account of an atrocity that helps shed light on a very dark and criminally overlooked period of human history. It is both shocking and painful, a film that is difficult to endure and even harder to believe. You will feel angry and upset but its importance cannot be understated, especially for the women involved and who, even today, are still fighting for justice and the apology they have yet to receive.
I have no doubt that Breaking The Silence will become an award-winning feature film in the future, but at the moment Seayoon Jeong’s 25-minute short is emotionally charged, emotionally rewarding, and extremely moving. It’s an important film of great significance and simply put, a film that must not be missed.