Remembering a dark side of history

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Remembering a dark side of history


Ahn Seong-ja, who is half African-American, wanders around a deserted military camp town in northern Gyeonggi, where she used to live. She recalls her painful past in the documentary film “Tour of Duty.” [CINEMADAL]

For decades after the Korean War (1950-53), the area near the demilitarized zone in northern Gyeonggi played host to a handful of U.S. military camps. Even after U.S. forces moved elsewhere in 1971, the military camps were left behind to become ghost towns until being demolished in 2011.

But although history has moved on, three women are still living with memories of their days living in camptowns.

Park Myo-yeon, 79, has owned a small restaurant in the area for 30 years. Park In-sun, 71, draws pictures on scrap paper to ease her pain. Ahn Seong-ja, 62, has struggled to get by as a mixed-race person.

“Tour of Duty,” a documentary film released Jan. 14, tells the stories of these women.

The film was awarded the Special Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 2013. “Tour of Duty” was also lauded at the 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and the Seoul Independent Film Festival among others.

The directors, Park Kyoung-tae and Kim Dong-ryung, spent time at the old camptowns around 2009 and 2010.

Park first discovered the plight of those from the towns about a decade earlier, when he was an undergraduate student of sociology at Dongguk University. He accompanied a classmate who volunteered at Durebang, an organization that assists marginalized women.

He did not want the shameful stories of camptown women to remain hidden, as it is part of Korea’s modern history.

During that time, he met Park In-sun, one of the main characters of “Tour of Duty.” She was drunk at 7 in the morning, wandering around town with a knife and threatening to kill herself.

Labeled as a “yangsaeksi” - a disparaging term for prostitutes for American soldiers in Korea - she had married a U.S. soldier and moved to the United States, but then moved back to Korea after being abandoned by her husband. Full of anger and pain, she eventually regained control of her life through art therapy. Park made a documentary film called “Me and Owl” in 2002 tracing her process of healing.


Park In-sun, who lived in a military camp town, walks around the abandoned town. For her, it is hard to forget her experiences of working as a prostitute for American soldiers and being abandoned again by her husband. [CINEMADAL]

Park also met director Kim in 2004 at Durebang, where she was volunteering as a translator.

Later while investigating the human rights of people of mixed race for the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, director Park met Park Myeong-su, a half-white man living in Bukahyeon-dong, western Seoul. The latter was working in construction and causing disturbances due to his drunkenness. He was also deemed inept due to being mixed race, his mother having been a prostitute for U.S. soldiers.

In 2008, the two directors went France to study. When director Park first envisioned “Tour of Duty,” Park Myeong-su was to be the main character. But while abroad, the director lost contact with him. When the couple came back to Seoul a year later, Park Myeong-su had died of malnutrition.

The two directors realized then that this was how Koreans perceived military camptowns and the people who came from them.

Around the same time, a physically disabled man named Kim Jong-cheol, who was half African-American, died after being mercilessly beaten by gangsters. Kim had lived near the site of an old camptown in Seonyu-ri, located in Paju, Gyeonggi. The police labeled the case as an accidental killing.

The director couple decided they wanted to tell the stories of Korea’s camptowns, and they set about making a documentary by filming the towns. They focused on capturing the images of the space in different light, at dawn, noon and night.

However, they knew empty towns could not make up the whole movie: they needed a story. So they decided to focus on the those who had lived in military camptowns: Park Myo-yeon, who had been the mother figure in Seonyu-ri; Park In-sun, who lived in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi; Ahn Seong-ja, who lived in Gimpo, Gyeonggi.

Their biggest concern was how to tell their tragic stories. Director Park said he regretted giving “Me and Owl” a happy ending. He had ended it with Park In-sun finding peace through art therapy, but he realized that was merely a reflection of what the audience and the director himself wanted to see.


Ahn Seong-ja looks around a house once in a former military camp town, where she lived with her friend. [CINEMADAL]

Director Kim had similar thoughts about her film “American Alley.”

In order not to repeat their past mistakes, the two directed the scenes together with the three main characters. Each character had different ways to speak about their pain and memories.

Park Myo-yeon mainly gave interviews in which she talked about the problems of the camptowns as a social issue. Park In-sun drew pictures to represent her pain and how she felt suffocated. Ahn Seong-ja presented performances as she was good at dancing and singing.

In this way, the directors represented the memories of the three in their own languages. The directors created a narration based on the words of the women.

Part of the narration reads, “women remained alone wearing a red dress, working like ants and disappearing like a spider,” which became the inspiration for the film’s Korean title, “Geomiui Ttang,” which literally means spider’s land. Park Myo-yeon used to say this often.

The film went on to be praised by international film festivals and critics. This acclaim and the film’s lack of provocative effects won over audiences.

While some scenes bring viewers to tears, the directors were mostly concerned with telling the stories truthfully.

Park Myo-yeon confessed that she had 26 abortions. Park In-sun yelled and cursed when talking about her estranged husband and the pimp. Ahn Seong-ja called on two imaginary friends and conversed with them.

“I think it is the best way for the characters to face their traumas in their own ways to overcome the reality,” director Park said.

The filmmakers used two distinctive methods to tell the story in a unique way.

First, the film breaks the hierarchy which is inevitably established between camera and subject.

“This documentary film is based on the intimacy between the director and the character that overcame the limit of camera lens,” said Byun Sung-chan, a film critic. “It has sincerely followed the role of cinema verite, the significant value of documentary genre.”

That is, the film is been led by the characters’ voluntary participation, with directors intervening as little as possible.

“I tried my best effort to avoid making the characters as mere spectacles,” director Park said.

In particular, he was very cautious not to let the characters simply act out what the directors were intending due to their close relationship

Second, the documentary tells the story of the camptowns through the main characters’ drawings, songs and movements rather than their speech, Byun said, explaining that “their bodies reflect the defiance of history recorded in written language.”

Marginalized or disadvantaged people are often left out of mainstream history and often express their stories in physical ways.

“It can be seen as an alternative history,” Byun added.

Thus, images of desolate military camptowns take up a large portion of the film. They seem empty but are brought to life with delicately adjusted sounds.

Take the opening scene, for example. Over the scene of thickly overgrown shrubbery, the sound of birds and a military song overlap, sending a chill down one’s spine.

“The yelling sounds full of pain and odd images are the byproduct of horrific memories, yet ironically they seem beautiful,” said movie critic Kim Sung-wook.

“Tour of Duty” leaves out the specific incidents but focuses on the sense of pain. And it shows how the pain has been indifferently forgotten through the passing of time.

“I wanted to show how the pain feels and what the trauma is like for those people, rather than the general history of the military camptowns,” director Park said.

“The stories of those people are almost the same: Because of poverty, they came to the town and the women were abandoned by their husbands and families. What’s more important is how to express the pain of this group in the movie.”

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now