One of my favorite courses in college was Literature of the Holocaust. Among the texts for the course was a thin paperback, Night (by Elie Wiesel). I devoured the book in one sitting and sat dazed for hours after that. All the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust in one little book written with such clarity and simplicity even a child could understand it.
When the first scenes of Eyes of Dawn unfolded, I thought immediately of Wiesel’s book. The women herded like cattle into the cattle car, their eyes wide with fear. Where were they going? To a concentration camp? I had to remind myself: “Hey, this isn’t Europe. This is China.”
Be prepared for a harrowing ride as you watch the drama. Be prepared for horrific scenes involving comfort women and human experiments. This is not your trendy drama, it is World War II. In the very first ten minutes of Episode 1 a woman is raped. Many more rapes will follow in just the first two episodes alone. A baby wailing on the ground is shot dead moments later. If you’re a Korean watching this, it is going to make you mad as hell. If you’re a Chinese or Japanese, you may experience all sorts of mixed emotions: rage, denial, guilt, indignation, shame… It’s very gripping stuff but highly disturbing.
[MAJOR SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 1-20 BEYOND THIS PAGE]
As the drama begins, the fate and destination of the women in the cattle car become clear: they are comfort women headed for a Japanese army camp in Nanjing. Screaming and wailing like pigs about to be slaughtered, they are thrown into the comfort barracks.
Among the women is a tall and frail-looking girl, Yun Yeo-ok (Chae Si-ra) – physically violated even before the train has reached the camp, chosen as main course for the commanding officer because of her beauty. But at the camp, her beauty has no bearing. Like all the other women, the only thing that matters is that she is female. Who cares if she is fat, pockmarked or hunchbacked? She just has to lie on the bed and wait, like a fresh carcass awaiting the vultures and hyenas. And they come… in the hundreds.
Among the Japanese soldiers in the camp is a young man, Choi Dae-chi (Choi Jae-sung). He’s not Japanese but has a Japanese name, Sakai. Conscripted against his will to fight the Chinese, he is taunted and abused frequently because not only is he Korean, he is a student. A Korean student soldier – the worst and most lowly combination.
As expected, Dae-chi falls in love with Yeo-ok and she becomes pregnant with his child. It is his child because only with him does she not use any ‘protection,’ only with him that she emerges from her log-like state. But then he is sent away to Burma, leaving her with the baby in her womb and his parting words: “Stay alive. You must live no matter what.”
Herded to another camp, Yeo-ok continues to ‘service’ the soldiers. It does not matter that she is heavy with child; what matters is the soldiers have needs to be met. And so it would have continued if not for the intervention of a young Korean medic, Jang Ha-rim (Park Sang-won). Telling the Japanese officers that she has venereal disease, Ha-rim succeeds in getting Yeo-ok isolated so that she no longer has ‘customers’ to service.
On the surface seemingly distant with her and speaking little, Ha-rim quietly ensures that Yeo-ok is protected in the Japanese camp. Because of his efforts, she can stop being a comfort woman, at least until the baby is born. Much later, when they meet again as prisoners of war under the Allied Forces in Saipan, he once more arranges for her special care, this time in exchange for classified information that he gives to the Americans. (Ha-rim’s devotion to Yeo-ok is one of the main reasons why I love Park Sang-won in Eyes of Dawn.)
There is so much happening in the drama. Without English subs, it would be impossible for me to follow the story. There are many location changes (different cities in China, Korea, Japan, Saipan, Burma…), many actors (and it’s thrilling to recognize many familiar faces and to marvel at how young they looked 15 years ago!), different themes (World War II, Japanese occupation of Korea and China, communist insurgence, the Korean Independence Movement, war atrocities and so on).
But I love the drama for its raw honesty, for portraying the tenacity of the human spirit (and also its frailty) and most of all, for the love story between Ha-rim and Yeo-ok. At the beginning of Episode 20, I realized Ha-rim was going to do something to save Yeo-ok from being killed by the Japanese Military Police. And when the enormity of his decision hit me, I cried.
So great was his love for this comfort woman whom he had met at the lowliest point of her life. She had another love and so did he. And yet in the tumult of the war their paths crossed. Neither had expressed to the other how each felt because there was no need. It was clear from the glow on their faces when they met again in Shanghai. How I love that scene when she appeared in front of him as the geisha Cho-sun and he couldn’t believe his eyes. He couldn’t stop smiling, so deep was his joy at seeing her alive and well and looking so beautiful.