The term “tearjerker” usually refers to films that artificially manipulate our emotions. I saw Ayla: The Daughter of War on the opening night of the Asian World Film Festival in Culver City, California. Each seat was provided with a handkerchief, and with good reason: this film is a legitimate tearjerker.
The effects of the tragic Korean War of 1950-1953 are still being felt 65 years later, as seen by the tentative rapprochement between South and North Korea during the recent 2018 Winter Olympics. A little-known aspect of this war is that Turkey sent a total of 15,000 soldiers in support of South Korea and its U.S. allies.
One of these soldiers is Sergeant Süleyman Dilbirliği (İsmail Hacıoğlu). He and the other members of his brigade have barely settled in when they come under heavy attack from the North Koreans. In the wake of the battle, the Turkish troops enter a village where everyone has been killed; everyone, that is, except a five-year-old girl holding onto the hand of her dead mother. It’s worth noting that it is never determined which side is responsible for this massacre. Süleyman and his comrades save the child and, with the eventual permission of their superiors, both Turkish and American, adopt her as their mascot and try to teach her the Turkish language. Since she is traumatized and unable to speak, they name her Ayla, which is Turkish for halo, because of her round face. When Ayla recovers enough to start speaking, she calls Süleyman “Papa.”
They go through many adventures together, but the time comes when Süleyman is sent back to Turkey. Ayla is put into a school with other war orphans, but it’s still a painful separation. Süleyman promises Ayla that he will return and adopt her, but, alas, despite his desperate attempts to return to South Korea, he is never able to do so. For his entire life, he is haunted by his failure to fulfill his promise to Ayla.
Sixty years later, journalists in Turkey and South Korea discovered that Ayla had been given a Korean name—Kim Eun-ja—and they tracked her down. Now a 65-year-old widow working as a janitor at a daycare center, she had never forgotten Süleyman. Flown to Seoul, Süleyman, now 84 years old, was finally reunited with Ayla.
After the screening at the Asian World Film Festival, director Can Ulkay and numerous others associated with the film came to the front to talk about the film and answer questions. When someone asked what became of Ayla, Ulkay said, “She’s right here,” and asked her to join them in front of the audience. I have been going to the movies since I was four years old, and I have never witnessed such a dramatic moment. As the audience members collectively gasped in surprise, a shy, elderly woman dressed in traditional Korean clothing walked to center stage. When she was asked about Süleyman, Kim Eun-ja, apparently knowing that Süleyman Dilbirliği was in ill health back in Turkey, began to cry.
Later, one of the film’s media coordinators, Pia Pinar Ercan, told me that Ayla and Süleyman were invited to visit the set during the film’s production. The crew happened to be filming a scene where Ayla draws a picture of her family. Mother—dead; brother—dead. Papa…and she points to Süleyman. The real Ayla and Süleyman both began sobbing, as did most of the crew, and the director ordered a break.
Süleyman Dilbirliği died six weeks after the showing at the Asian World Film Festival.