Movie preserves unforgotten history of 'comfort women'

Trailer of "Dahan"

A movie based on the experiences of three former "comfort women" during World War II has returned to the silver screen across China on Tuesday.

The film Great Cold, or "Dahan" in Mandarin, tells the suffering and torture of the fictitious protagonist Cui Dani and her fellow villagers caused by Japanese invaders during WWII.

"Dahan" is the first Chinese movie to focus on the stories of "comfort women" in north China's Shanxi, a province which was ransacked by the Japanese.

It began shooting in 2015, wrapped in 2017, and hit the screen for the first time between January and February.

"Wednesday marks the anniversary of Japan's surrender in WWII. We re-released the movie to commemorate the surviving 'comfort women' and show people how to treat history," said movie director Zhang Yueping.

"We should learn to be stronger and lay aside the hatred. But it doesn't mean forgetting the history," he added. "We have to remember the past to move forward."

"Comfort women" is a euphemism for girls and women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese during WWII.

Some 400,000 women across Asia were forced to be "comfort women" for the Japanese army, and nearly half of them were Chinese, according to the Research Center for Comfort Women at Shanghai Normal University.

There are only 15 registered surviving "comfort women" who are still alive on the Chinese mainland, with an average age of over 90.

Old age has taken the lives of the three archetypes in the film -- Hou Dong'e, Wan Aihua, and Cao Heimao.

On the table of a village house in Shanxi, Cao's portrait is placed. Twenty-plus days ago, she died at the age of 96.

"My mother was too weak to eat. She died without any suffering," said Li Guihua, Cao's adopted daughter.

Cao was taken to a comfort station in Yuxian county and raped by Japanese soldiers when she was a teenager. Despite being pregnant twice, neither survived, and she became infertile for the rest of her life.

The ravages of WWII were felt across the globe. Although the war ended more than 70 years ago, its ghosts linger on for some of its oldest, almost forgotten victims.

Zhang Shuangbing, 65, was perhaps the only person Cao wanted to share her miserable experience with when she was alive.

The retired teacher has spent more than 30 years visiting and interviewing over 100 "comfort women." He even helped 16 victims sue the Japanese government in several cases since the 1990s, asking for apologies and compensation. All have failed.

"The victims I have helped passed away without receiving the justice and apologies they had longed for most of their lives," said Zhang Shuangbing. "I thought about giving up, but my conscience didn't allow me to do so."

Director Zhang met Zhang Shuangbing many years ago. He was moved by the latter's persistence and decided to produce a movie on "comfort women."

"Zhang Shuangbing spent more than 30 years doing one thing. He's poor and still lives in a traditional cave dwelling," he said.

The film has won acclaims from the public. "The movie is like a dialogue between the past and the present. Even with a small budget, it is a good film that records common people's wartime memories," said Chen Xuguang, deputy head of Peking University's School of the Arts.

Rao Shuguang, secretary-general of the China Film Association, said that most Chinese films meet the entertainment needs of the public, but few tell how to think about history.

"I was very moved," Rao said.

In China, more and more people are showing their concern and love for the war victims.

A documentary titled "Twenty-Two" featuring 22 Chinese "comfort women" drew tears at cinemas last August. It made 139 million yuan (around $20 million) within nine days of opening.

According to Zhang, the director, he chose the title "Dahan" as it is the final period of winter in the traditional Chinese calendar.

"After Dahan comes spring, and new beginnings," he said.