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SHUSENJO


SHUSENJO: THE MAIN BATTLEGROUND OF THE COMFORT WOMEN ISSUE (Shusenjo) 


April 4, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Miki Dezaki


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If you have even a casual interest in Asia, Miki Dezaki's Shusenjo should not be missed.  ©FCCJ

The FCCJ has hosted many a press conference devoted to what is perhaps the most incendiary flashpoint in Japan’s postwar relations with Korea and China. Since the early 1990s (at least since 1991, when Hak Sun Kim became the first Korean to testify about it), the comfort woman issue has spiraled into a seemingly insurmountable impediment to improving ties in the region.

The internet has encouraged a proliferation of counterproductive arguments and counterarguments about the treatment of these women, casting doubt on “the truth” and creating an increasingly bifurcated divide. One side supports the victims, who have given moving accounts of the outrages perpetrated against them; the other side insists the women were well-paid prostitutes and the Japanese government was not complicit in “creating a massive, organized rape system,” as has been charged. 

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Surprisingly, until Miki Dezaki’s Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, there has not been a feature documentary that thoroughly investigates the facts, figures, opinions and distortions of both sides. For this reason alone — and there are many, many others — the film is absolutely essential viewing.

Appearing at the jam-packed Q&A session following FCCJ’s screening, the director told the audience: “I always get the question ‘Why did you make this film?’ And one of the reasons why is that I thought a 2-hour film could flesh out or give context to this issue that the media aren’t able to do in the short time they have to report on it … I thought maybe there needed to be a more comprehensive introduction to the issue, to remind ourselves how we got here.”

Unless you’re a member of a neo-nationalist group with ties to Japan or a devoted fan of Japan-focused YouTube videos, you’ve probably never heard of Dezaki, aka Medama Sensei. In 2012, the Japanese-American teacher (as well as former Buddhist monk and graduate of Sophia’s Global Studies Graduate Program) raised uyoku (far-right) ire by posting a short video called “Racism in Japan,” in which he discussed zainichi Koreans and burakumin outcasts. It led to relentless online attacks by Japanese neo-nationalists, ongoing harassment, even death threats.

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The placement of comfort women statues in California has aggravated
tensions even further.  
©No Man Producions LLC.

Realizing that deeper issues were at play, Dezaki eventually decided to meet the challenge head-on.

He spent the next several years conducting the type of balanced, in-depth reporting that was once the purview of the news media. On his own dime, he criss-crossed the globe, meeting with a wide-ranging group of experts and eyewitnesses, amassing footage from milestone events dating back to before WWII, even conducting man-on-the-street-style interviews. Then he edited it all into a comprehensive, comprehensible whole.

Shusenjo does a remarkable job of exploring, explaining and de-sensationalizing this most contentious of disputes in Asia, this “gross human rights violation” that has also impacted the lives of women in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, East Timor and Micronesia. 

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Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead are enshrined.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Dezaki casts himself as the lead inquisitor and seeker of understanding in the film, and patiently counters arguments on both sides of the ideological divide. Shusenjo probes a range of crucial questions: Were all comfort women “sexual slaves?” What does “coercive recruiting” really mean? Does the often-inconsistent testimony of the elderly victims even matter? Does Japan have a legal responsibility to apologize? Are the Chinese paying for those comfort women statues in California? Where the hell is the smoking gun? Why are venerable newspapers like the Japan Times “redefining” their vocabulary around the issue? And what does it all have to do with Shinzo Abe’s march to remilitarize Japan?

Shusenjo lays out a complicated timeline of acceptance of facts and increasingly aggressive denials, with unexpected confessions and revelations that allow Dezaki to deconstruct the dominant narratives and uncover the hidden intentions of both supporters and detractors. Few, it turns out, are innocent of fanning the flames of outrage.

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©FCCJ

The filmmaker was asked whether his opinion had changed during the process of making the documentary. Dezaki nodded. “I think I was like every other American who’s read about this issue in the newspaper. It’s taken as fact in America that there were 200,000 women, and they were sex slaves who’d been forcibly recruited. I had no information to rebut that, so I took that as fact at first. Through research and interviews — I actually interviewed more people on the conservative side first — I started to question a lot of things that I thought I knew.

“I didn’t have anything to rebut them with, either. I had this constant going back-and-forth as I was making the film. That was emotionally difficult because, as human beings, we want to have an idea of what’s right. We don’t want to waver and be in the middle. I wanted the audience to feel that as they watched the film. There were times I was challenged and re-challenged on a lot of issues. I had debates and discussions with my co-producer and associate producers, and I didn’t come to my conclusions until the editing stage of the film.” 

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Young supporters of the comfort women in Korea.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Among the many interviewees who appear in the film, familiar names to those who follow the issue, are Yoshiko Sakurai, Mio Sugita, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Koichi Nakano, Kent Gilbert, Tony Marano, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Mina Watanabe, Setsu Kobayashi, Hirofumi Hayashi. Still, one attendee was critical about the “lack of balance” between the film’s talking heads. “You interviewed a lot of scholars who support the comfort women,” he said, “but you didn’t interview many on the other side. Obviously, you knew Prof. Ikuhiko Hata. Did he decline to be interviewed? Do you know Tsutomu Nishioka, a leading professor? I spoke to him and he said that you never approached him.”

(Hata is a historian and retired professor of international relations who has written about the comfort women. Nishioka is a Korean studies professor at International Christian University who has also written extensively about comfort women.)

Responded Dezaki, “One of the first persons we wanted for the film was Professor Hata. The problem was that he asked us first to interview Prof. [Etsuro] Totsuka and Prof. [Yoshiaki] Yoshimi, so that he could respond to them. So once we did that, we went back to him. He said, ‘Please write a proposal.’ So we wrote a proposal for him. I talked with him on the phone once after that. He said, ‘Call back.’ I called back and his wife answered. She said, ‘Please call back in the evening.’ As an American, I don’t think it’s polite to call people in the evening about work. So I called back the next day, and he was very upset that I didn’t call him in the evening. Because of that, he didn’t want to be interviewed.

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©Koichi Mori

“As for Tsutomu Nishioka, I was planning on interviewing him towards the end. But when I was reading the materials he’d written online, I noticed that a lot of things he said were very similar to many of the things that had already by said by many of the people I’d interviewed before. I didn’t feel like I needed that footage again.”

Shusenjo had its world premiere, aptly, at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival. Asked how it was received in South Korea, Dezaki said, “The response was interesting. I do criticize the comfort women supporters to some extent [in the film]. I don’t think they felt totally comfortable with the film. But one of the comments I got, from a young Korean woman, was that she was surprised so many Japanese people supported the comfort women. For her, this was a kind of Japan-Korea battle, but [now] she realized it was more of a human rights issue. I think that shows how biased the media are not only in Japan but also in Korea on this issue.” 

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 ©Koichi Mori

Calling the film “powerful and important,” another attendee asked where Dezaki had procured the rare historical footage of Korean comfort women that is used sparingly in the film. Said the director, “I got it from my South Korean associate producer, who got it from Korea’s MBC Broadcasting. I didn’t use too many testimonies in the film [because] there are many films already with extensive footage of the comfort women’s testimonies.”

The Glendale and San Francisco statue-placement disputes are included in the film, and Dezaki was asked what he thought the US position was. He responded, “I don’t think they necessarily care about this issue that much, but they know it’s a big sticking point between the two allies, [so] whatever they can do to bring the allies closer. With the [2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea], I think they felt it was finally something that could be resolved. Prior to that, they had the House Resolution 121 that was demanding that Japan apologize for this. The [2015] agreement was kind of a shock to a lot of people in Korea who support the comfort women. The American government sort of flipped on this issue and I think it’s probably because they don’t care much about it.”

“What do you think it would take for the Japanese government to do to satisfy those Koreans who are most invested in the issue?” asked another audience member. Said Dezaki, “I really don’t want to speak for them, but what I oftentimes hear from them is that they would like this to be taught in schools and they would like a Diet resolution passed, similar to what [then-President] Reagan did. It seems that they don’t care about the [reparations] money so much, from what I understand. I think for them it’s more about passing on that history.”

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©FCCJ

Dezaki was asked why he’d relied on his “own research and analysis, rather than interviews,” in the section of Shusenjo that explores the position of the Abe Administration vis-à-vis the comfort women. Admitting that he had used the narration mainly to pick up the flagging pace, the director answered: “This is a film on the comfort women issue, but in the opening, I ask why the revisionists, or the so-called denialists, want to censor or silence the issue. That’s the overarching theme of the film. What led me there was realizing that there was this connection. The question for me was why do they care about this so much? Why was the Japanese government sending an amicus brief for the Glendale statue trial? That’s a pretty big thing for a government to do for a small trial. I went down that path and tried to find the answer.”

Finally, the filmmaker was asked whether the government had asked for a special viewing of the film. “I would love for the Abe Administration to see the film, that would be great” said Dezaki. “I don’t know if they want to. I can’t go into too much detail, since I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but when I was in Europe showing the film at a private [university] screening, the Japanese consulate in that city contacted the professor and said, ‘Why are you showing this film? Please come to the consulate to talk about this.’ So I guess it’s on their radar to some extent.”

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©No Man Producions LLC.

Selected Media Exposure

 

HIS LOST NAME


HIS LOST NAME (Yoake)


January 15, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Nanako Hirose


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Nanako Hirose makes her first appearance at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori 

There’s nothing quite like being called the protégé of a beloved Cannes Palme d’Or-winning director to attract interest in your own directorial debut.

But while she must be feeling intense pressure from all the attention, Nanako Hirose displays the equanimity of a veteran. As she told the FCCJ audience following the sneak preview screening of her first feature, His Lost Name, “I’ve been watching Mr. (Hirokazu) Kore-eda work up close for a very long time, so I have to admit that his work is at the core of my own. I’m very grateful to him for allowing me to make my feature debut with this film, but I look at this as my declaration of independence, as my becoming a filmmaker in my own right.” 

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©Koichi Mori

Hirose had joined Bunbuku, the production company run by Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, in 2011, after graduating from Musashino Art University. Over the next seven years, she worked as a director’s assistant on Kore-eda’s TV series Going Home (2012), as well as his films Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016). She also served in the same capacity on Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (2016).

Kore-eda and Nishikawa are credited with providing “development supervision” for His Lost Name, and when queried about the meaning of that, Hirose said, “Bunbuku is essentially a collective, and its mission is to discover and [nurture] new talent. We can propose a film project, and if it’s accepted, Mr. Kore-eda and Ms. Nishikawa will participate in and oversee the project. I started writing the script in the summer of 2016, and we went into production about 18 months later, shooting for about a month.”

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Kaoru Kobayashi rescues Yuya Yagira... or is it the other way around? 
©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Like her mentor, Hirose takes her time telling her story in His Lost Name. As the camera gently observes their quotidian rituals, her characters grapple with unanswerable questions, and only gradually are the mysteries at the heart of her deeply moving film revealed.

As it opens, a young man grieves on a bridge, but we are spared his ensuing act of desperation. Discovered and rescued from the riverbank by taciturn widower Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi of Midnight Diner), the young man (Yuya Yagira, Destruction Babies) is clearly torn between fleeing and staying. “Stay until you feel better,” suggests the older man, who seems to have an innate understanding of the youth’s anguish, and perhaps other reasons for the generous gesture. 

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 ©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Later, he asks his name. “Shinichi Yoshida,” says the youth, hesitantly admitting that he’s “doing a little soul-searching,” and that he had been in the rural town “a long time ago.” Tetsuro assures him it’s none of his business, and that Shinichi must follow his own path to answers. But he immediately takes him under his wing, giving him a place to stay, teaching him carpentry skills in his woodworking shop and including him in get-togethers with his friendly coworkers and his younger fiancée.

In Hirose’s unhurried style, a lot goes unsaid. It is some time before we realize that “Shinichi” is also the name of Tetsuro’s dead son, and nearly half-way through the film before we are given even a hint of what dark secret is haunting the youth. When he finally breaks down and confesses, he unleashes the older man’s own feelings of guilt, regret and crippling self-doubt. Eventually, the relationship will begin to unravel as Tetsuro’s over-eager acceptance and Shinichi’s past incites the suspicions of those around them.

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In brief remarks before the screening, Hirose had told the audience, “I will be pleased if you find similarities with Mr. Kore-eda’s work in this film, but I hope you'll also find differences.”

Pressed afterward to discuss how she had dealt with the comparisons that would inevitably be made, she said, “I was aware of the need to differentiate my work from Mr. Kore-eda’s and Ms. Nishikawa’s. I put a lot of thought into two points in particular: first, I didn’t want to spell out my intentions with words, or to rely on the dialogue too much. Second, I wanted to have the camera mirror the viewpoints of the characters.”

Elaborating on her approach to the film’s cinematography, Hirose explained that the film begins with the camera shooting from behind the characters, and then, “towards the middle, it starts shooting from in front of the characters, so it’s no longer pushing or chasing from behind, but rather pulling. I wanted this to reflect how we see the characters change. When we first see the protagonist, played by Mr. Yagira, we don’t know what he’s all about. He’s hard to read. I wanted to emphasize that. But as the story progresses, we start to understand him in a way, whereas the character played by Mr. Kobayashi starts out as a very friendly character, someone we can empathize with. But as the story progresses, it’s increasingly hard to figure him out, and we see the sort of madness that’s in him.” 

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©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Hirose was asked whether she’d had any hesitations about casting Yagira, given that he had won the Best Actor award at Cannes for Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows when he was just 14. She responded, “Mr. Kobayashi was the first character that was cast. We had trouble deciding who should play the protagonist. We discussed Mr. Yagira at a very early stage, but as we all know, Mr. Kore-eda gave birth to his career, in a sense. So I felt a certain pressure about including him. I wasn’t initially sure about casting him.

“But [while writing the script] I ran into problems moving forward with the character, because he’s such a passive character. It was hard pushing him along. Then I discovered that if I imagined Mr. Yagira in the role, I could progress smoothly with the script. So we realized we had no choice but to cast him in the film.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of Young Dais, a rapper and film star who plays Daisuke, one of Shinichi’s colleagues at the woodworking shop, Hirose explained, “I cast him because I wanted a sense of danger and creepiness to the character. On the surface, he’s very nice and kind, but there’s an apprehension that comes with that. When someone’s too kind or says words that are overly kind, I’m always apprehensive. In the face of obsequiousness, I think our dark sides come out. It’s intentional that all the adults around Shinichi in the film are very kind. I think that’s reflective of contemporary Japan, and it homes in on the discomfort the younger generation feels.”

In response to a question about the film’s English title, the director said, “The Japanese title, Yoake, means dawn. The process that the protagonist goes through in the film is like walking through a dark tunnel, and the title reflects the hope that he will see the light of dawn. I really like the Japanese title, but when we discussed the English title for international sales, it seemed that a straight translation of the Japanese wouldn’t be specific enough. So we ultimately decided on His Lost Name because I thought it would be a good way to pull the audience in. Although it doesn’t reveal much, it has a hint of suspense to it, and I thought it was an accessible title.” 

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 ©Koichi Mori

The film’s soundtrack is driven by a moodily melancholy score, written by American singer-songwriter Tara Jane O’Neil, not the most obvious choice for a Japanese filmmaker — but one that beautifully underscores Shinichi’s out-of-placeness. Said Hirose, “Since the film takes place in a rural area and is quite claustrophobic, I wanted to use music that was a little more free-spirited, let’s say. I initially wanted to use something like Nordic post-rock, but we couldn’t imagine which musicians we would be able to use.

“One of the producers, Eiji Kitahara, who’s my senior colleague at Bunbuku, knows a lot about music and has this very eclectic taste. One day he said, ‘Nanako, we’re going to a live gig tonight,’ and we went to Shibuya and saw Tara Jane O’Neil. It just happened to be the last day of her Japan tour. I thought her music was wonderful, and a really good match for the visuals I was imagining for the film. It had this expansiveness to it. So we went to discuss the soundtrack with her after the concert. She said okay right away, and that’s how the collaboration came about.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

The Q&A session revealed that viewers had been interpreting the final scene of His Lost Name in different ways, and that their understanding could be attributed to neither national or generational backgrounds. Reporting what Hirose’s intention would involve a spoiler, so suffice to say that she did not intend to suggest an open interpretation. That the film’s ending creates ambiguity, opening the door to viewer discussion, is an accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker — and a tribute to the mentoring of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa.

His Lost Name world-premiered at the Busan Film Festival in October 2018, won a Special Mention from the international jury at November’s Tokyo Filmex, and has just been included in the competition lineup of the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema. It’s sure to have long legs.

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©2019"His Lost Name" Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure


DIVING BELL: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL


 April 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang


Almost exactly 2 years after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry off the coast of Donggeochado Island, South Korea, the Film Committee screened Diving Bell: The Truth Shall not Sink with Sewol, the first documentary completed in the aftermath of the disaster. Although we generally host sneak previews of brand-new films only, showing them just before their theatrical releases, there are a number of mitigating circumstances that have kept this 2014 film at the top of the headlines.

Chief among them is the unresolved nature of the Korean tragedy: Since the overloaded ferry capsized and took down 304 passengers — mostly high school students — with it, there has been no real closure. The South Korean government has been roundly criticized for its ineffectual disaster response and attempts to downplay culpability; the media has been blamed for toeing the government line; the ferry operator, captain and crew, who abandoned ship, have been charged with criminal behavior.

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Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang

But of equal newsworthiness is the position of Diving Bell in a still-unfolding battle for freedom of speech and the future of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). When the film’s title was included in the BIFF 2014 lineup, pressure was immediately applied by the Busan City Council to withdraw it. BIFF Director Yong-kwan Lee rightly rejected the government’s interference, inviting demands for his resignation. Asian film authority Tony Rayns termed it “a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices.”

Lee stood firm, the film was screened as planned in October 2014, and the national government immediately slashed its subsidies to the festival, which is considered to be Asia’s largest and most vital. The Busan City Council then stepped up pressure. Throughout 2015, thousands of supporters around the globe signed petitions and sent messages of solidarity for Lee and BIFF. Ignoring the international outrage, Busan Mayor Byung-soo Suh allowed the festival director’s contract to expire in February 2016. Korean filmmakers soon announced they would boycott BIFF 2016 if city authorities do not allow it to operate freely. Five other Korean film festivals also publicly admitted that they had also had problems with government interference.

Finally, just two days before the FCCJ screening of Diving Bell, an association of Korea’s top film bodies announced they would encourage all members to boycott BIFF 2016, reducing even further its chances of being held as normal.

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Ahn, has a long relationship with Japan, and made all his remarks in fluent Japanese.

Making the timing of FCCJ’s screening seem even more prescient, on April 19, Reporters Without Borders announced its 2016 Freedom of the Press rankings, and warned of “a new era of propaganda.” To no one’s surprise, South Korea had tumbled 10 places, down to #70. But of greater impact was this: Japan’s ranking plummeted 11 places, putting it even lower than South Korea, at #72.

Clearly, Diving Bell is now in the unenviable position of being the Korean bellwether of that most insidious journalistic trend, press “self-censorship,” as well as the issue of film festival censorship, either from within or without.

As one FCCJ member reminded the audience, just weeks ago, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York was forced to pull the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, due to a public outcry over its “discredited” claims that MMR vaccines cause autism. Festival head Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic son, criticized the uproar that forced the film from the lineup.

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                               Hwang describes the film's reception on its limited theatrical release in Korea.    ©Koichi Mori

As for the city’s pressure to withdraw Diving Bell from the BIFF 2014 lineup, director Hae-ryong Ahn said he came to realize “It was not really the content of the film itself that was a problem. The issue was not the safety of the people of Korea but the safety of the government, and that’s what motivated the effort to quash the film.” But he also admitted feeling that “I was the cause of the problems that the festival is facing now, and I feel responsible for that.”

The BIFF controversy did have the unintended effect of boosting the film’s public profile. Producer Hei-rim Hwang explained, “The film did not get distributed in the major multiplexes, but it was shown [in limited screenings] in 25 smaller theaters and community halls, with attendance topping 50,000. Considering the limited release, this was quite good. Also there was good word-of-mouth, and we had Q&A sessions with the families of the victims. Most people came thinking they would see what they’d already seen on mainstream media, but they realized it was only one side of the story. What we were trying to do was ask ‘Why not listen to the other side of the story as well?’ We’re not saying that this is the truth, but that there is another side to the story. We wanted to open the door to a debate about what really happened.”

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The BIFF controversy brought far wider recognition to the film.   ©Koichi Mori

Diving Bell follows investigative journalist Lee Sang-ho (a charismatic, Michael Moore-style truth-seeker) as he rushes to the coast of Donggeochado on April 16, 2014, shortly after the Sewol has sunk. To his dismay, he discovers he is one of the few reporters on site, and that the rescue work by Korea’s Coast Guard has stalled. The failure to save a single passenger during the “golden time” of the first 72 hours, when it is critical to reach and rescue trapped victims, is blamed on strong currents and poor visibility. Yet when news reports begin airing, they claim that all 476 passengers have been safely rescued. Lee stays on site as the tragedy unfolds over the ensuing weeks, talking with grieving parents and witnessing the government’s failure to organize a competent search-and-rescue operation. But it is the vilification of one potential hero, Lee Jong-in, who brings a diving bell at his own expense, knowing that it could greatly hasten the discovery process, which gives the film its reverberating bite.

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                                                                                                                                                                                         ©Koichi Mori

The you-are-there immediacy of Diving Bell still feels bruising, two years after the event. Like many a story whose ending we already know, it unfolds like a nail-biting thriller, with unforeseen twists and turns that are so improbable, they can only be true. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2015 Fukuoka Asian Film Festival, the documentary offers a dramatic eyewitness vision of the horrifically botched rescue effort, the unresolved controversies over the diving bell, and the still-ongoing media distortion that cloaked the realities of the event. In the film’s final moments, journalist Lee Sang-ho talks with a grieving father who blames himself for his son’s death aboard the Sewol. “What do you want?” he asks. “People deserve the truth,” sobs the father.

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Ahn joined audience members after the screening, and there was spirited discussion.        ©Koichi Mori

Is there renewed hope about the truth following the April 13 elections, in which South Korean President Geun-hye Park’s party was stripped of its majority in Parliament? “The election has already changed things,” said Ahn. “There was even an article in [a conservative newspaper] saying that film is entertainment, and politicians shouldn’t get involved in [censorship attempts.] It’s possible that this will allow the media to be more aggressive in their reporting about the powers that be. In Busan itself, five opposition-party members were elected, and this may cause a shift in the overall thrust of the city government.”

Other documentarians have been doing follow-up research and filming on the Sewol, and perhaps, just perhaps, BIFF 2016 will include one of the sequels in its lineup.

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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©2014 Cineport

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