Actor Cha In-pyo speaks to reporters about his debut novel “Goodbye Hill” in the recent press conference. / Yonhap
By Chung Ah-young
Among a slew of the books written by celebrities these days, actor Cha In-pyo's book is conspicuous for many reasons.
First of all, the book is the first novel ever penned by an actor in Korea. Secondly, it is not a vanity project or self-focused ego-fluff, but rather deals with the issue of comfort women. Comfort women refer to the sexual slavery of numerous women, mostly Korean but also including Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian nationalities and even Europe, by the Japanese military in its imperial expansion years.
Cha's involvement in the book titled ``Goodbye Hill'' goes back to 1997, when he first heard the story of ``Grandmother Hoon.'' She had been hauled off as a comfort woman to Cambodia during the colonial period and continued living in that country for 70 years until she visited her native Korea in 1997.
The 41-year-old actor's interest was first piqued upon hearing the news reports. So for the past decade, he worked on the idea, researching, writing, and editing his manuscript.
Set in Tiger Village at the foot of Mt. Baekdu in the 1930s, a youthful hunter, Yongi comes to a village with his hunter father to capture the tiger that killed his mother, and encounters Suni, the daughter of the village chief.
While staying in the village, Yongi and Suni becomes close, but after capturing the tiger that threatens the villagers and their livestock, he has to depart along with his father, making her heart grow fonder toward him.
Several years later, a dark shadow is cast upon the village as Japanese troops led by Kazuo enter it. Kazuo is a warm-hearted and humane officer who gets along with villagers well and falls in love with Suni.
But Kazuo has to obey orders from his senior officers to conscript unmarried women aged between 14 and 20. In the village, only Suni remains free. But the relentless senior officer orders Kazuo to conscript Suni and exploit other services from the villagers.
She is dragged to another camp as a ``comfort woman'' along with other women from various regions. Hearing upon it, Yongi attacks the Japanese military camp with fire arrows and saves her. At the same time, the dismissed Kazuo also tries to save her but Yongi and Suni have already run away.
Amid the tightening pursuit by the Japanese soldiers, Kazuo also tries to look for the girl to apologize for his country's brutality toward Korean citizens, especially women, and plans to smuggle her into Japan.
Yongi and Suni take shelter in a rusty dugout where he and his father used to hunt tigers in the past. But the Japanese soldiers find them and Kazuo who tries to set Suni free on the mountain. They shoot Kazuo and Yongi and take her back to the camp.
Then, 70 years later, Suni returns home as she didn't know the country has been liberated from Japanese occupation.
The historic sour relations between Korea and Japan is decades-long, but the matter in the book isn't a nationalistic one so much as it is a travesty of basic human rights. These women's sufferings have been swept under the table for more than half a century without reparation or public apology.
Cha carefully approaches the issue through the basic human relations rather than directly portraying the agonies of the comfort women, and the three main characters ― Yongi, Suni and Kazuo ― draw a story of forgiveness and reconciliation in the novel.
His depiction of Suni's childhood seems to be reminiscent of ``Rain Shower'' by Hwang Sun-won. But at the same time, the awkward portrayal and over-stated message in a simple and flat plot renders it fairy tale-like.
``At first, I planned to write just a fairy tale for my son. But as I wrote the novel, the scale got bigger … I have never learned how to write. So I finished the novel with patience rather than skill,'' Cha said.
Cha said that he wrote the book because he wanted to tell his descendants the story of grandmothers and grandfathers who endured hardship when Korea was at its weakest.
``I think many former `comfort women' are asking the Japanese government to make a public apology not just because they want compensation for their lost years but so it does not repeat its evil doings on our descendants,'' Cha said.
Cha went to Mt. Baekdu in 2006 to portray the region and visited the ex-comfort women's care center in 2007 to better understand them.
Cha known as a socially-conscientious celebrity for his adoptions and charitable activities for the needy along with his wife and actress Shin Ae-ra, finds something in common with his latest film, ``Crossing'' which portrays North Korean defectors.
``If I find something in common between the film and the book, it's compassion for others. Having an interest in and compassion for others leads to knowing and studying them. It is not a temporary thought but a lifetime matter,'' he said.
It's a hard topic to write about, and in any case it's clear he has put a lot of care into it. ``I don't know how to forgive (a tiger) that doesn't apologize to me,'' Yongi says. ``You don't forgive it because the tiger begs for forgiveness but for your mother who has become a star,'' Suni says in a sentence about forgiveness.