SEOUL, South Korea - The painting showed Japanese soldiers taking young women who had been forced to work in Japan's military brothels to a burning pit. When he saw it, Korean filmmaker Cho Junglae said, he was shocked — and inspired to make a feature film about the "comfort women" of World War II, many of whom never made it home.
The project languished in uncertainty for more than a decade as Cho, now 41, struggled to find funding. Potential investors and friends warned him that close ties between South Korea's main film distributors and Japan would hamper the film's commercial prospects. Others expressed reservations about the film's subject, which is still considered a taboo topic in socially conservative South Korea.
But the film's fortunes have changed in recent years as Japanese far-right nationalists have become more vocal in their calls for Japan to reassess previous apologies for its wartime actions. The demands have helped stoke anew the long-running dispute between Japan and nations in the region about the country's culpability during World War II, prompting outrage from the Korean public and increased support for projects like Cho's.
Now, after more than a decade in limbo, "Spirits' Homecoming" will resume filming.
If the film is finished, it will be one of few movies about comfort women. The film lacks a distributor, but Cho plans to submit it to festivals and hold a screening with former victims and investors.
He has raised about $500,000, mostly made up of small donations from South Koreans and Korean communities in Japan and the United States, but that is far short of the estimated $2.5 million needed. But he is determined to continue.
After years of trouble raising funds, Cho in 2011 received an unexpected contribution from a friend, a professor at Konkuk University in Seoul. It was just $3,000, but Cho used it to make marketing leaflets and posters. The money, coupled with the increasingly charged political climate, injected new life into the project, setting off a wave of donations and media attention in South Korea.
President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, in a recent speech celebrating the 96th anniversary of Korea's uprising against Japanese colonial rule, urged Japan to provide justice for the remaining 50 known South Korean comfort women whose average age, she said, is close to 90.
Japan, which ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945, has called the demands unreasonable, asserting that the country has demonstrated sufficient remorse for its wartime aggressions. Many Japanese are angered by what they see as ceaseless demands for amends.
Cho's film tells the story of two Korean girls, Jung-Min and Young-Hee, who are kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and forced to work in a so-called comfort station. After one of the girls dies while trying to escape, the two friends have a spiritual meeting many years later with the help of a shaman.
To write the script, Cho drew on historical accounts and stories told to him by survivors (known in Korea as halmonis, or grandmothers), whom he had become close to through his time volunteering at the House of Sharing, a nursing home outside Seoul where 10 women who worked in the brothels lived.
After several Japanese actors abruptly dropped out for unexplained reasons ("pressure from their family," Cho surmised), he settled on a cast of Korean and ethnically Korean-Japanese actors. Nearly all of the actors have agreed to participate in the film without pay.
The cast recently gathered in the cold basement of Cho's JO Entertainment production company office in Seoul. There was a recent addition to the cast: veteran stage actress Son Sook. Son, 70, said she agreed to participate after reading — and crying over — the script, sent to her by Cho. Son will play a character based loosely on Kang Il-Chul, 86, a survivor who, during a psychotherapy session at the House of Sharing in 2002, made the painting "Burning Virgins" — the film's inspiration.