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North Koreans depicted with rare realism

2008/06/12 Source

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"Crossing", directed by Kim Tae-gyoon, does not shoot for a box-office jackpot as other mainstream movies do.

The production team, in fact, knows very well that the movie's serious theme - a realistic depiction of North Koreans - is unlikely to translate into big revenues.

But the movie aims high when it comes to the plight of North Koreans. Ranging from perilous border crossings to horrifying gulags to arduous resettlement in the South, the movie's realistic details are sharpened to perfection.

For North Korean defectors here, the movie means something more than a cinematic storytelling. At a special preview event in Seoul last Thursday, about 180 North Korean defectors watched the film, and many of them were crying during the screening. They seemed struck by the powerful images - scenes that inevitably bring back the dark memories of their life in the North.

"I had some doubts about this event because my movie might reopen the painful wounds inflicted on those who have defected to the South", Kim told the audience following the screening. "But I made the film in my humble belief that if there were somebody else who could cry with you, your tears would dry faster".

Kim said he felt deeply sorry about his belated attention to the dire situation of North Koreans. "I'm sorry to have made a movie that is painful to watch", he said.

Painful as it may be, a realistic portrayal of North Korea is long overdue. No major movie project dared to tackle the thorny issue, not least because the matter in question is still regarded as politically sensitive.

A growing number of North Koreans risk their lives to find asylum in South Korea and elsewhere, but the refugee issue rarely gets attention in the media here, much less on the silver screen.

In the film, Yong-su (played by Cha In-pyo), a North Korean in a mining town in northeastern Hamgyeong Province, leads a tough life with his wife, Yong-hwa (Seo Young-hwa) and his 11-year-old son Jun-i (Shin Myung-chul).

Yong-su finds brief yet precious comfort when he plays soccer with his son in the backyard in the evening. Life is hard, but Yong-su does not have any intention of breaking out of his life in North Korea. Yet he sees no other choice but to cross the border to China to make extra money to buy medicine for his sick wife.

His risky stay in China, however, means that he should always watch out for any sign of Chinese police because, if caught, he will be deported to North Korea and face dreadful consequences.

He falsely believes that he can get more money in the form of special subsidies if he contacts South Korean officials in China, but this decision lands him in South Korean territory, turning his status into a North Korean defector. While Yong-su is transferred to Seoul, his wife dies of a chronic illness. His son, Jun-i, is now left alone in the North.

The tragic turn of events pushes Jun-i to cross the border himself to reunite with his father, and from this point on, the movie devotes a fair share of the running time to show how Yong-su and Jun-i struggle in two different places that are separated by years of mixed feelings following the 1950-53 Korean War.

Director Kim's camera constantly switches between Yong-su and Jun-i, accentuating the excruciating pain of the separation, and, yet, underlining an emotional bond that transcends geographical gap.

The sheer dramatic power of "Crossing" comes from the stark reality facing North Koreans. Director Kim deserves special credit for embracing an objective angle rather than indulging in a preachy tone that is pervasive in politically charged movies. By rendering the suffering of North Koreans as it is, he succeeds in amplifying the movie's emotional impact that will prompt many viewers to realize their utter ignorance of what North Koreans really go through.

North Korean defectors' organizations supported the film project by offering detailed descriptions of the situation in the North and lending photographs that were used as references for the film. The production team also interviewed more than 100 North Korean defectors.

Enhancing the realism is the impassioned acting by Cha In-pyo and Shin Myung-chul, both of whom have perfect North Korean accents, another contribution from North Korean defectors who volunteered to help with the project.

Despite the impressive acting, whether "Crossing" will fare well at the box office remains uncertain. But the movie leaves no doubt about its aim to raise public awareness of North Koreans - by crossing a tricky cinematic border, in a step that is painfully rare in Korean cinema.

By Yang Sung-jin

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