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Gina Kim's VR Film "TEARLESS" invited to the 78th Venice Film Festival

Photo for Gina Kim

Director Gina Kim's VR Film "TEARLESS" is the second piece of a three part series addressing the mistreatment of Korean comfort women by American soldiers.

Tearless is a 360 3D immersive VR project on “US comfort women,”* forced by the South Korean government to serve US soldiers in camp towns outside the US military bases. Using immersive media technology, this project focuses on these women’s memories within a detainment center called “Monkey House”—a prison established by the South Korean government and staffed by the US military in the 1970s to isolate and treat comfort women with STDs.

*NOTE: While the term “comfort women” has been associated with the Japanese imperial army’s use of sexual slavery before and during the World War 2, it is now increasingly understood more generally as instances of government forced prostitution as seen in a recent decision by the Seoul High Court.

Following the Korean War, an average of 25,000 US soldiers per year have resided in the US military bases in South Korea, occupying as much as 17.7 percent of the nation’s habitable land. Concurrently, the Korean and US governments worked together to establish 96 “camp towns” equipped with brothels and clubs around the US bases, which have involved one million women thus far.

In the 1970’s, the Korean government led by a military dictator required camp town women to wear number tags and STD test results on their chests at all times, pressured by the US government to lower the STD rate among their soldiers. Random inspections were held on the streets twice a week to haul suspected carriers away along with those without number tags. The women who were suspected to have STD were locked up in a detainment center and indiscriminately treated with harsh doses of penicillin that resulted in severe side effects and occasional deaths. Some women jumped to their deaths. The detention center was given the name “Monkey House” because people could hear the imprisoned women screaming to be let out like monkeys trapped in a zoo. Although no longer in operation, the Monkey House building still remains to this date.

Tearless is an immersive media project that interweaves elements of experimental documentary and narrative storytelling, while actively incorporating a new medium and technology to further my efforts for utilizing new technology for social justice. Wearing a VR headset, viewers are virtually transported to the immersive environment of Monkey House. Once entering the site, the viewer will be introduced to the multiple rooms of the building such as bedroom, bathroom, dining hall, and treatment room – all of which is communal and bare like those in the military camps. The staged props that emerge slowly in the footage imply what the women had to go through in each room, based on the testimonies from the women as well as a handwritten panel of the daily schedule that was discovered on the site. 

I first visited Monkey House during the production of Bloodless. The building has been relatively untouched like a haunted house on a cursed land in between farm fields and hiking trails. The windows are blocked with barbed wires that were now covered in heavy vines and cobwebs. The door-less communal showers and wooden bunker beds lay there as physical remains of the horror that took place. Perhaps the building remains relatively intact because of the palpable fear and shame that are ingrained in the space. The site is not a memory but a real presence of the past itself.

The US military comfort women physically embody the ruins and contradictions of the 20th century, as well as the violence against women and oppression of foreign individuals, and they have yet to receive recognition and reparations. In 2018, the Seoul High Court ruled that the Korean government was responsible in justifying and facilitating acts of prostitution against the comfort women in the process of operating and managing the camp towns. The ruling also implicated the US government in facilitating prostitution and violating the rights of these women, calling for their response and admission of guilt. The court officially referred to the women as “military comfort women” for the first time, acknowledging that the women were involuntarily and systematically offered up by the government as sex slaves to US soldiers. This is a historical ruling that acknowledged both governments’ unlawful acts and responsibilities for the pain these women suffered.

Controversies surrounding US immigration policies that stoke violence toward marginalized groups, as well as the recent Me Too Movement, call for artists to shed light on silenced individuals who live, quite literally, in the space between two countries and outside the protection of their laws. Tearless aims to archive the site as well as bring forward the experiences of these women while they are still alive.


Director Kim is a professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Kim's feature films have been theatrically released to critical acclaim in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Click the links below for more information about "TEARLESS" and the 78th Venice Film Festival.

Published: Friday, August 6, 2021