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South Korean films embrace defectors

The image of defectors has been humanized, and no longer reflects the anti-communist education most

Jan 27,2006

From top: “A Boy with the Knapsac,” one of five shorts in “If You were Me 2”; North Korean defector Sin (Jang Dong-gun) in “Typhoon”; Mantaek and Suae (Kim La-la and Jeong Jae-young) in “Wedding Campaign.”

North Korean defectors are the latest trend in Chungmuro, South Korea’s movie-making district. More than 1,000 defectors flee to the South each year. Last year’s releases, “Wedding Campaign” and “Typhoon,” feature defectors as main characters, as do the soon-to-be-released feature “South of the Border,” and the short “A Boy with the Knapsac,” one of five short films included in “If You were Me 2.” This isn’t the first time Chungmuro has dealt with the defector issue, but in the past there was definitely a sense of ideological prejudice in movies like “Double Agent,” in which North Koreans were portrayed as spies, and “Lost in the South Mission: Going Home,” which ridiculed them. But times have changed, and Chungmuro’s perception of defectors has become humanized.

Defectors enter the world of movies
As a scene is filmed in the lobby of Moak Hall at Sori Arts Center in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, the first thing that jumps out is a placard that reads “Kim Jong-il, Sun of the 21st Century,” along with large-scale pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. On stage, the revolutionary opera “True Daughter of the Party” is underway. Clad in military uniforms, the actors perform an intense battle scene while a revolutionary song booms in the background.
Of course, this isn’t happening in real-life, but on the set of “South of the Border,” during the filming of a scene where the main character, Sunho, gives his final performance as a horn player for the Mansudae Art Troupe in North Korea. He manages to escape from North Korea immediately after the performance and undergoes all sorts of hardships before arriving in South Korea. But he doesn’t quite find the happiness he imagined. Instead, he has trouble adjusting to a different lifestyle and ultimately ends up in a detention room after attempting to return to his lover in North Korea. In this manner, the movie depicts the reality of defectors and the miserable lives they end up leading in both North and South Korea.
Another defector story, “Typhoon,” revolves around Sin, a pirate who loses his family while defecting from North Korea and later is rejected by South Korea. The film directly confronts the tragedy of the Korea peninsula. In its most poignant scene, Sin reunites with his long-lost sister, bringing audiences to tears. In “Wedding Campaign,” Lala, another defector, goes through all kinds of obstacles after leaving North Korea, venturing as far as Uzbekistan in an attempt to enter South Korea.

Moving south does not guarantee happiness
Unfortunately, South Korea, the land that defectors dreamed of for so long doesn’t quite guarantee their happiness. They merely run into new obstacles: contempt and prejudice. The filmmakers came to this conclusion after they met with numerous defectors and observed their lives in South Korea.
Director Chung Ji-woo of “A Boy with the Knapsac” wanted to observe the lives of teenage defectors up close, so he made arrangements to stay with them for a while. What he witnessed became scenes in his movie: young defectors ostracized in school, pursued for not paying their bills and mistaken for spies because of their North Korean accent. “When you hear the term ‘defector,’ it’s easy to conjure up an image of people climbing fences of foreign embassies, but that’s not all there is to this issue. North Korean defectors aren’t foreigners. We belong to the same race. I really hope the audience, upon watching the movie, will lend a thought to these people at least once.”
In “South of the Border,” Sunho experiences the heartlessness of South Korean society the moment he sets foot in the country. His relatives, who greeted him so enthusiastically only days ago, now shun him. To make matters worse, he gets swindled and loses all the resettlement funds he received from the government. He then has no choice but to deliver chickens during the day and work as a waiter dressed as Kim Jong-il at a nightclub at night. Actor Cha Seung-won, who plays Sunho, commented, “Growing up, I received an anti-communist education, which I must say, biased me against defectors. But after I met them to learn the Pyongyang accent, and really talked to them, I realized I needed to change my views. Seeing them working so hard and staying positive under such tough circumstances really moved me.”

A Realistic Portrayal of North Korea
“South of the Border” distinguishes itself by vividly portraying how residents of North Korea actually lead their daily lives. The crew spent 500 million won ($500,000), or 10 percent of their budget, on the revolutionary opera scene, although it only takes four minutes of screen time. They hired musical actors and a symphony orchestra to make it as accurate as possible. North Korean symbols and icons, such as the North Korean flag, Kim Il-sung badges and revolutionary placards, which are normally banned in South Korea, appear quite often, adding to the film’s realism.
Initially, the producers wanted to shoot some scenes in North Korea but the North Korean government adamantly refused when they heard the movie was about defectors. The Chinese government refused them too, also citing the defector issue. They resorted to hiring defectors to travel all over South Korea to find places that resembled the North. Computer graphics were used for urban scenes in Pyongyang.
Director Ahn Pan-suk said the visuals should be faithful enough. “Our society has greatly matured ―enough not to ban the use of the North Korean flag or portraits of Kim Il-sung in movies. The audience should have fun watching images of a North Korea they’ve only heard about,” said Ahn.


by Joo Jung-wan


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