I’m not sure what I was expecting from the documentary Tour of Duty, but I don’t think it was a stream of consciousness meditation about the lives of women around an old U.S. Army base in South Korea. In fact, if you didn’t walk in knowing that this was a movie about so-called “comfort women” and what their lives were like while the base was there, and what their lives are like now that it’s closed, you wouldn’t know what you’ve walked into. That’s okay though. The element of surprise is nice, and for about two and a half hours of watching Tour of Duty, you have no idea where you’re going or what you’re going to get.
Directors Kyoung-tae Park and Dong-ryung Kim walk a thin line between dream and memory, what’s real and what’s constructed, in making Tour of Duty. Three women are dealing with a past life as “wianbu” or “yanggalbo.” Wianbu is the term that means “comfort woman” and is used if one is feeling charitable, yanggalbo is the term that means “Western whore” and is used if one is feeling not so charitable. These women were encouraged to sell their bodies as a support industry for U.S. and Allied bases across Korea, both during and after the war. It’s a local industry that’s been hit by hard times with the closure of bases, but the ghosts, both literal and imagined, remain for the women.
The setting is a town outside a former U.S. military base near Seoul, and it’s not hard to see that entertaining American troops was the big business. Like any company town that’s lost its company though, this town is a shell of its former self. Former gentlemen’s clubs are all boarded up, their paint chipping, their signs falling apart. Meanwhile, the old army base is a wasteland, grown over by the local vegetation, and in a couple of years you won’t be able to tell that there was anything there at all.
Such poetic and metaphorical thoughts are easily brought to mind since really no one’s telling you a story. After a leisurely opening with various shots of the long-since abandoned military base and the town around it that’s dying slowly, we see one of our subjects arrive at her restaurant, prepare for the day, start cooking, serve customers and close up again. She then sits down to talk to the interviewer, and she launches into her medical history, including 26 abortions over three years and a hysterectomy by the age of 29. In the theater you can practically hear a pin drop the moment after she starts talking.
About half the film follows two Korean women, including the restaurateur and another woman trying to find peace through meditation and Buddhism. The other half follows an African-Korean woman as she climbs through the ruins of several abandoned “comfort stations,” as the voice over narrates the friendship of Annie and Sera. Sera, named after the Doris Day song “Que sera sera,” disappeared 34 years earlier, and Annie’s narration chronicles the journey that she knows of from one U.S. Army base to another. What I’m not sure was made explicitly clear though was whether or not the woman we’re watching is Annie, or maybe she’s the daughter of Sera, or maybe she’s just a stand-in. There’s such a production value to Annie and Sera’s story that I think anything could be possible.
It’s okay if there’s incidental confusion though, because Tour of Duty is playing things very subtle, but there’s a chance that it might be seen as overly pretentious as well. At two-and-a-half hours long, it may be pushing the bounds of patience with too many divergents and too many lingering establishing shots of the town or the overgrown army base. There is such a thing as poetic license, but Park and Kim walk a very thin line between docudrama and documentary, and sometimes they lose themselves to the memories of the moment. The film probably could have been about a half hour shorter and not lost any of its punch, because as it is, it definitely rambles.
But, despite the ramble, there’s still power in some of these scenes. As one of the women visits the abandoned base, she throws bread crumbs about the ground and curses the ghosts that still haunt her after all this time. She talks about getting to become a ghost herself one day, which will then give her the power to haunt those that plague her, and you realize just how deeply these women are affected. You wonder how many like them are out there, and how many maybe never made it this far, like Sera and the others who have disappeared. Despite its shortcomings, Tour of Duty is a striking film, even if it doesn’t fit the conventions you typically associate with a documentary.