Cinespect is proud to bring you coverage of some of the highlights from this year’s 5th edition of the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY), which runs from March 17-20. The festival promises many more films than the amount that will be covered here on the site but it is our hope that you’ll find yourself curious and eager to explore beyond what is reviewed here. This year’s edition offers more than 14 features and 25 shorts to choose from, which range from early Korean cinema up to the most current Korean American films.
For this edition of our KAFFNY coverage we have contributor Melissa Silverstri reviewing three films by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who is being honored by KAFFNY this year with a retrospective that includes six films. The screenings of two of her films, “Sa-I-Gu” and “Wet Sand: Voices of L.A.,” will be followed by a talk between Dai Sil Kim-Gibson and Charles Burnett.
Enjoy the festival.
Review of “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives” and “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.”
The L.A. riots in 1992 were a tragic moment in the history of L.A.’s race relations, not only between black citizens and corrupt officers in the LAPD, but between black people and Korean-American people co-existing together on the same streets, where many Korean shop owners had black customers. Years of hostility between Koreans and blacks due to misunderstandings blew up during the riots, when many stores owned by Koreans were destroyed and burned down, and lives were lost in the terror. In the 1993 documentary “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives,” and its 2004 follow-up “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.,” director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson records the stories of the Korean women who were devastated by the riots, and who lost husbands and sons amidst the chaos. The film explores race relations, poverty, and the immigrant experience of making it in America, and how decades of hard work were lost within one week due to the riots.
Sai-I-Gu is Korean for April 29th, the day when the riots started. In L.A., many Koreans had come over and settled in an area known as Koreatown, where it was like their own country. No white people, no outside influences, their home culture within a new landscape. Many Koreans opened convenience stores, and the majority of their customers were black people. The local racism carried over into these stores, where black people viewed Koreans as being like white people, trying to assimilate by assuming the criminal worst about black people, and not treating them with respect. And Koreans would be seen as the foreigners, the ones who refuse to learn more English, the strange immigrants. Some of the women will admit to these perceptions of blacks by Koreans as having been carried out by others, and stating how if one is to have a store in a neighborhood, one should get to know their customers instead of openly disliking them or treating them like potential thieves. This would all come to tragic consequences during the riots, when stores were destroyed, particularly as revenge at Koreans who didn’t treat their black customers fairly.
More so, this film is about the disillusionment of the American dream. As stated by one of the women, “I thought America was perfect, since she helped others abroad. After the riots, I feel there is a huge hole in America.” When Koreans came to America, saving for years and packing up their families, instead of coming to the America as seen on TV, they came to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of South Central L.A., where they had to struggle to survive all over again and work hard to ensure that their children would have a good future. When their stores were destroyed, anger was not at the black citizens who did it, but at the LAPD and state government who favored protecting the wealthy and middle-class but allowing the blacks and Koreans to “fight over crumbs,” because it didn’t affect white supremacy.
One of the saddest moments in the film is Mrs. Lee speaking of her son Edward Jae Song Lee, who was killed by a Korean who thought he was a looter. Her disbelief at her son’s death (and still in disbelief and grief a decade later) is palpable, and her realization that he died based on seeing his photo in a Korean-American newspaper is heartbreaking.
“Sa-I-Gu” is a raw and emotional film that can be hard to watch because it puts such innocent faces over a tragic event, but it is painstakingly honest in showing the cracks in a flawed society. Its follow-up “Wet Sand,” revisiting the events and tracking how race relations have gone in L.A. since then, doesn’t offer much hope. Despite the formation of activist groups like the Association of Korean-American Victims, the Korean-American and black citizens of L.A. deny that there is a problem between them, and that the media played up the supposed rivalry to avoid confronting white/black tensions. The lack of good public education in L.A. leads many young people to the streets to make quick money, and the money that would go to education would go instead to wealthy developers. There isn’t a happy ending to either of these films, but a wider awareness of the immigrant experience in America and the tragic consequences when race relations is escalated to deadly ends.
“Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women”
Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s 1999 documentary “Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women” is a difficult documentary to watch, because the wounds that the elderly Korean women interviewed received as a result of being made into sex slaves by the Japanese army during WWII are still palpable. The Japanese military coerced or kidnapped Korean women and took them all over Southeast Asia to be sexual playthings for war-weary Japanese soldiers to use and abuse, raped over and over again. Yet decades after these violations of human rights, Korean comfort women are not recognized as victims of the war and not given public and legal reparations. It took a lot of bravery and honesty for these women to speak of these painful memories before the camera, capturing these stories before their ultimate passings (many of these interviews are from the 1990s and the women were quite elderly at the time).
These ranged in age from young adults to being as young as twelve years old, taken from their families and schools either by force or with the promise of job opportunities abroad. This is much like the human trafficking trade of today with Eastern European women in impoverished countries promised great jobs in Italy or Germany, but tricked into becoming sex slaves instead. In WWII, the military ships would pick up and drop off girls in foreign countries all along Southeast Asia, taking Korean girls as far as Thailand and Indonesia. Every girl was given a forced hysterectomy to ensure that there would be no pregnancies. They belonged to the government, and their bodies were to be taken advantage of until they were of no use to anybody. In a chilling recollection, a woman describes seeing half-dead girls being dragged out in front of new recruits, and the soldiers telling the new girls that if they don’t obey, this will happen to them, before shooting the wounded girls in the head. It is unbelievable how one can go through life having seen such horrible torture and death and not lose their mind, or not lose faith in humanity. When one woman states that she wishes that she could “have her youth back,” or another says that she would wish to be a man instead of a woman, it’s all one can do to not scream in agony at these horrible acts forced upon these women in the name of war and power.
The women weren’t just used for sex, but also used as expendable fighters, trained to kill Chinese civilians with bayonets, and forced to do it. Another woman remembers eating human flesh. Their dehumanization as comfort women broke their minds down to become mindless fighters and slaves, one woman even forgetting how to speak Korean and never re-gaining the ability, in regret as she lives on her death bed.
Japanese men appear throughout the film, mainly a teacher, a soldier, and scholars, in plain denial of what these women went through, or downplaying their stories as not being as bad as they say it was. It’s as if that if men say that women are crazy or exaggerating, then the patriarchy won’t take them seriously, and not see them as true victims of war.
Kim-Gibson’s film excels because she captures the stories of several women who are willing to speak on camera about such a horrific past, and ensure that they will be remembered and not forgotten after their passings for audiences today to be educated and aware. It is a stunning and unforgettable documentary, without any pomp or flash, just honest stories from women who could be your grandmothers.