[MOVIE REVIEW]North Koreans are human beings, too

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[MOVIE REVIEW]North Koreans are human beings, too

If you believe North Korea is the axis of evil and all North Koreans are monsters, stay away from “Songhwan (Repatriation).” This documentary film explores the idea that North Korea can be a place of paradise for some South Koreans.
Directed by independent film guru Kim Dong-won, the film starts showing with English subtitles tomorrow at Hypertheque Nada, an art house theater in northern Seoul, every holiday and weekend at 11 a.m. The film means a lot to the director; it’s his first film to open in mainstream theaters since his 1988 debut, after a number of documentaries about the have-nots of society.
To make this two-and-a-half hour documentary, Mr. Kim followed his main characters for 12 years, political prisoners who served decades in jail for refusing to give up their pro-North Korean ideas. Jailed mostly during the Korean War (1950-953), the prisoners, who are mostly North Korean agents or soldiers, had fought against torture by the South Korean military regimes.
Mr. Kim begins with the prisoners’ release and follows them to their repatriation. As he makes himself a part of their group, Mr. Kim narrates the film in the first person. However, he doesn’t blatantly side with the former prisoners, and his fair treatment is the strength of the film.
The director opens the film by saying, “My father, a card-carrying right-winger, would be angry at this film. But I guess the characters in the film may not be so happy about the film, either.” He does not try to dictate to viewers which ideology is right or wrong.
He does not deify the former prisoners, nor does he judge them. The director does not water down any scenes that show the former prisoners’ weakness.
He shows them flaring up at the protest by the South Koreans whose family members were abducted to the North. With this, the director shows that former prisoners are not perfect, either. They are neither freedom fighters nor monsters ― they’re just his friends, who want to go back to the country that they believe to be paradise.
His intention is the most evident in the main character, Jo Chang-son, who is the least political of the group. Instead of focusing on other political prisoners who are better known, the director feels the most comfortable with Mr. Jo, even ending the film by saying, “I miss you, Grandpa Jo.” To the director, ideology isn’t strong enough to hinder the bond among human beings.
The film, however, cannot be completely free from political ideology. As he emphasizes in the film, he does not idealize North Korea, but he frankly describes the United States as the one to blame for the division of the two brethren countries, driving the North into a corner.
Mr. Kim won the Freedom of Expression award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah. It was a hard-won honor. While filming, he was arrested for violating the National Security Law.
Despite being accused of disrupting social order, the message that the director tries to deliver is quite simple. He’s promoting an attitude of tolerance that stems from the absolute truth that we are all human, whether from the North or South.
Even though they’ve gone home, he’s still thinking about his friends. His dream is to film “Repatriation II,” about the lives of the former prisoners in their home country.


“Songhwan” (Repatriation)
Documentary / Korean with English subtitles
148 min.
Starts showing with subtitles tomorrow


by Chun Su-jin

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