The stories are horrific, tear-jerking, and hard to fathom.
Approximately 200,000 girls and women were taken by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, and forced into sexual slavery at "comfort stations" for soliders.
Ever since a redress movement for the women began in the late 1980s, the Japanese government has repeatedly failed to adequately acknowledge their involvement and responsibility, and avoided providing an appropriate apology and agreement.
For Toronto filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, the full story that needs to be told is not simply about the horrors that happened but about the resilience and lifelong struggles that the survivors have to tell that have not been heard.
"My approach wasn't to just be saturated with one part of their life," she said by phone from Toronto. "That does not define who they are. What defines them is how they've survived all these years and that's a remarkable story, and that's a story that should be honoured and respected and be remembered and be heard."
Hsuing, who has been researching the subject matter since 2009, captures three such stories in her National Film Board of Canada documentary The Apology, which screens in Vancouver this weekend.
The film highlights three women, each from different Asian countries, who are among the last of the elderly survivors. Their age and state of health underscores the urgent need for the Japanese government to act before it is too late.
One of the three women is Gil Won-Ok (or Grandma Gil) who was only 13 years old when she was taken to what she thought was a factory job. The sexual experiences and physical abuse she was subjected to, up to the age of 18, left her with medical issues and a lifetime of darkness and pain. As if that wasn't enough, she was never able to reunite with her family in Pyongyang after the North Korean border closed in 1945.
Since she came forward with her story, she has travelled around the world, including to the United Nations, to raise awareness about the issue and has taken part in a peaceful protest conducted weekly for over two decades outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.
"I was just blown away by her sheer energy that she commanded with the crowd, and the fact that she's travelled around the world…and demonstrating—things that I don't know if I would ever have the strength to do what she does," Hsiung said about Grandma Gil. "For me, she's just a pillar of inspiration and I've looked up to her since I've met her."
Meanwhile, the strong-willed and fiercely independent Grandma Cao lives on her own in rural China. She never told her adopted daughter about the atrocities and hardships she experienced in her past—until this film was being made.
Hsiung said Grandma Cao reminded her of her own family, who is Chinese Canadian.
"There's so much to be learnt from just watching Grandma Cao but it all makes sense to how this woman was able to survive after the war," she said.
In the film, we also meet Grandma Adela. In Roxas City, Philippines, she helps a support group for other sex-slavery survivors, who don't know she is one of them. She regrets keeping her secret from her late husband and wrestles with the challenge of telling her children.
Hsiung said that when she asked Filipina survivors what their wish was, all of them wished for justice and apology—except for Grandma Adela. Her wish was to be able to tell her children about her past.
That yearning struck Hsiung, making her want to know more about this secret Grandma Adela had carried with her for a lifetime.
"I wanted to follow Grandma Adela to understand where does that all come from and how do we break that cycle of shame and silence," Hsuing said.
While it is difficult in any country or culture to discuss experiences of rape, sexual violence, or torture, Hsiung felt that there were cultural and religious issues at play that contributed to the silence that kept these stories hidden for so long. Hsiung found that despite the fact that the women came from different countries, there was a common theme between them all of taboo subjects that could not be broached.
What she did find made a difference, though, was that the countries which had organizations or groups that supported the survivors, such as the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, enabled others to come forward.
"If they don't really have that type of network and their families don't really want to talk about this…and their government isn't really supporting them either, what else are they to do but to just kind of carry through and keep this hidden, which really answered one of my questions why it was taking so long for this story to come to [the] public and I think…there was never a space for them to tell their stories, both within their families as well as in their communities."
Hsiung feels that this lesson is something that Canada can learn from as well in making changes within our own contemporary society.
"We talk a lot about atrocities and the history and all of that but I think for us to truly understand the impact of war, we need to understand the aftermath," she emphasized.
"We need to understand how they survive and what it's been like for them after all these years."
The Apology will screen at the Vancity Theatre at 4:10 p.m. on Saturday (December 3) and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday (December 4), with filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung participating in Q&A sessions at the screenings.
The film also screens at Vancity Theatre on Wednesday (December 7) at 8:30 p.m.