It's not as powerful as you might expect, but it's still a film with an important true story to tell.
It's the story of Walter Dempster, Jr, better known as Walterina Markova. He was a "comfort gay" for Japanese soldiers in the Philippines in World War Two and, for a while until his death in 2005, the last of them still alive. However when not being gang-raped at bayonet point, in peacetime he was a drag queen in a group of cross-dressing dancers and then later a make-up artist. He was on-set throughout the shooting of the film, to tell everyone how it had really been, then he was present for its premiere at the Metro Manila Film Festival and got a standing ovation. He thought it was wonderful. To quote the man himself:
"As humans, we won't live long. Revealing my own story is my way of inspiring other gays who continue to be oppressed today. By my act, I may have probably given freedom to many other gay people."
The other important thing is the term "comfort women", which refers to women forced to serve as prostitutes by the Japanese military. In other words, they were sex slaves. At a guess, 200,000 women were used like this, of whom only one in four survived and most of those couldn't bear children afterwards. They'd be raped perhaps thirty times a day, even by the doctors who were checking them for venereal disease. What's doubly shocking though is that today there's denial about this in Japan, not just from revisionist motherfuckers like Ikuhiko Hata but also from people as high up as the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in March 2007 when he said "there is no evidence to prove there was coercion." However normal people aren't like that and there are important dissenting voices:
1. there's a 1983 Japanese book called My War Crimes: The Impressment of Koreans, in which the author tells how he forcibly procured women on the direct orders of the military.
2. in 1991, to its credit the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan ran a year-long series on comfort women, which pushed the topic violently into the public eye. Two years later, this eventually led to Yohei Kono, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, making a statement in which for the first time the Japanese government admitted that their military had operated comfort stations.
3. there's a 1998 UN report on Japan's guilt and liability. This should not have been necessary.
Personally, these days I'm not that worried about the original war crimes. They were horrendous, yes, but that was a different Japan in a different time and most (although not all) of the victims are now dead. The people today who try to deny it, though, are unforgivable.
In other words, this movie has heavy issues. What's surprising about it though is that I'd almost call the film happy. It's done via a framing story, in which Markova in the present day is interviewed by a journalist. His wartime experiences aren't even a particularly big part of the movie. Markova is a delightful, charming man who loves life and is just as happy talking about his teenage years or his time dancing with the other drag queens. He doesn't hate Japan. On the contrary, in his spare time he runs classes for Filipino models who are about to go and work there.
This makes the film feel less important than you might expect. It's no world-shaking masterpiece. On the contrary, it's a camp and often light-hearted biography of a man who thinks he's very lucky, which furthermore doesn't have any great dramatic point except for Markova's thoughts on life and what it all meant. If this were fiction, you'd be wondering why the drama hadn't been more beefed up and why it wasn't annihilating to watch... but of course it's real. This is what the real Markova was like. That's what makes this important. Of course he's a sensitive man who's lost a lot of friends, but he acknowledges the grief without letting himself get swallowed by it.
On top of that the flamboyance is also wildly entertaining, in a way that would see these people fit in among The Iron Ladies
. He lives in the Home for the Golden Gays in Pasay City, where even the staff mince around like Liberace.
It works as a film too. It's very watchable and the performances are strong (except for the interviewing journalist). Markova is played by three actors, one of whom is the father of the other two. The oldest Markova is played by Dolphy, who's been working in films since 1946 and is still at it like a demon. He's a joy to watch. I loved him. There's nothing like a grand old actor at centre stage and Dolphy gives a masterclass. Then the other two Markovas are Dolphy's sons, Eric and Epi Quizon, who look so much like each other that I didn't realise they weren't the same actor.
It's an interesting movie. It's less interesting than interviews with the real Markova, which can be found online, but it's still well worth watching. Dolphy on his own is worth the entrance money. One thing that particularly struck me, incidentally, is how specific episodes in the film turn out to be exactly the same, word for word, as Markova's first-hand accounts of his past.
Overall, I'd recommend this. It's not "oh my God, you have to see this" like Schindler's List or Devils on the Doorstep
, but I don't remember finding another film with its combination of charm, simplicity and an unusual historical perspective. Not many people know that the Japanese military also raped men. There are comfort women who've refused to believe it, for instance, although in fairness Markova and his fellow drag queens were so convincingly female that I wasn't sure at the time whether they were men, women, transgendered or all of the above. Markova could have sex with Japanese or American officers without them realising his true gender. That's what the film's about, really. It's not about war crimes, or Japan. It's about him. It's about one man, expressing herself.
"Yes, we used a rubber bust which was saleable here during peace times. And when my customer started to hold my bust, I told them, 'Darling, that is private property. I'm sorry, darling.' So they invited me to go to the Officers' Club. Imagine, I'm dancing inside the Officers' Club. Even the American women didn't know that I was a gay."