Directed by: #SeayoonJeong
Written by: Seayoon Jeong & #SandraPhilip
I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘comfort woman’ before this film and after twenty minutes Seayoon Jeong made sure I will never forget it.
Enlightening, harrowing and leaving audiences eager for more, Breaking the Silence is a powerful drama which gives a much-needed voice to a horrifying period in human history. Over 70 million people were killed during World War Two; soldiers, civilians, prisoners through war, disease and genocide. Those who survived told their stories ensuring future generations knew the brutality and the sacrifices made to end it. Countless filmmakers and artists have used this period to create great cinema though few have tackled the nightmarish reality of comfort women. From 1932-1945 The Imperial Japanese Army routinely kidnapped women from across the Pacific and forced them into sexual slavery for their soldiers, exact numbers of victims are still debated by historians but it ranges from the ten to hundred thousand.
Jeong’s creates a fictional account through the character of Francesca, a nurse in the American Red Cross who is abducted in the wake of the St. Stephen's College massacre in Hong Kong 1941. Fact informs the fiction and it makes Jeong’s film all the more heart-rending in how Francesca played by Grace Shen and in flashbacks by Grace Chin serves as the ‘everywoman’, her story is the same as thousands. One of violence, contempt, and trauma, Jeong’s and Sandra Philip’s script follows clear conventions but the intensity of this subject matter isn’t diminished. Initially, I was underwhelmed by Breaking the Silence due to its familiar narrative structure; flashbacks framed through Francesca being interviewed by Rumi Oyama’s Betty. Unaware of historical contexts I felt Jeong was going through the motions of a typical drama, finding these flashbacks to the 40s lacking immersion.
Then Jeong literally kicks the doors off the hinges, the tragic history takes hold and nothing about Breaking the Silence feels artificial again; the violence is excruciating, Grace Chin’s performance bleeds tragedy and empathy, you’re in this nightmare now. Nothing feels exploitative, the distressing imagery used serves character and context, we see Francesca subjected to cruel inhuman acts but never for the sake of shock value. From the production design to cinematography, all departments step up in making the ‘Comfort Station’ a chilling location. Makeshift buildings juxtaposed against the dense forest, as if the Imperial Army is trying to camouflage their barbarity through municipal organisation. Sean J. Daly’s use of black and white for these flashbacks really emphasises the contrasts in the imagery such as thick dark blood against white hospital floors or dim rays of light shining across Francesca’s stricken expression.
The strength in the film’s drama and performances earns its empathetic ending but it feels as though Breaking the Silence just scratches the surface of its potential. Whether Jeong and her team intend for this to be a stepping stone for a feature-length project, there are clear opportunities to delve deeper into this material. For its 27 minutes Breaking the Silence showcases captivating filmmaking in exploring the reality of ‘comfort stations’ and its victims but also briefly the fight to have these atrocities recognised and condemned as war crimes. Even with my own brief research after viewing the film I can tell there is a much larger story to be told here and I can only hope that Seayoon Jeong will continue the work started with this film.