This essay does not concern the history of comfort women per se; rather, it treats disruption and transgression in the discourse of comfort women, as filmmaker Byun Young-Joo sets in motion in The Murmuring (1995). This essay is particularly concerned with Byun’s visual language in The Murmuring, which exceeds or is independent of the film’s dialogue and narration, spoken to defy and subvert the tyranny of the social norms that regulate gender and sexuality. Although shot when the research on comfort women was inchoate, the critical power of The Murmuring is still unsurpassed because it confronts the difficult but fundamental issue concerning comfort women: the heteronormative desire that sanctioned the violence of wartime sexual slavery. The history of the comfort women has often been written as an indictment of Japan’s military imperial ideology, with the goal of recuperating its victims into a semblance of normality, but such normality conforms precisely to the very patriarchal codes that naturalized the institutionalization of Japan’s military rape in the first place. Byun’s cinematography suggests a recuperation of comfort women, not in the interests of a normalized heterosexuality, but something that might be associated with the queer, a form of defiance aiming to “undo restrictively normative conceptions” of sexuality and gender.
After considering Byun as an icon of transgressive gender and sexuality, this essay delves into her queer camera work and visual narrative structure in The Murmuring. Utilizing the rhetoric of coming out, Byun documents Kang Deok Kyeong’s protest against social erasure in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In a scene of domestic activities such as cooking, washing, and hairstyling, which are traditionally associated with femininity, Byun critiques the discourse of normalcy surrounding former comfort women who must endlessly negotiate with the social regulations of womanhood. Bodily desires are emphatically configured in Byun’s film even in standard interview scenes, and the architectural setting of the former comfort women’s residence (the House of Sharing) metaphorically mirrors the psychological state of its inhabitants. Physical interactions between the women of the House of Sharing are shown to challenge the regulations of gender and sexuality, and bodies that resist the silencing in the name of father are hauntingly featured. With an in-depth examination of the final scene in which Hong Kang Rim stands naked before Byun’s handheld camera, this essay explores the cinematography of the queer and the undoing of gender and sexuality.