Film takes an apolitical look at kidnap victimsA quick scan of the script of Sa Eugene’s “People of No Return” makes the story look like political propaganda. The film’s subject seems to fit the appetite of Korea’s political conservatives, who have used hundreds of similar films to advocate their ideological views and portray North Koreans as villains.
But the director of “People of No Return”, a haunting documentary about 30,000 South Korean civilians abducted to North Korea during and after the war, has intentionally made his film dry to avoid political biases, and packs it instead with statistics, documents and footage from historical archives. The film, which took three years to complete, is to be screened at the New York International Film and Video Festival in May.
The film delves into a subject that has long been excluded from mainstream academic discussions in Korea due to the dearth of historical evidence that civilians had been abducted by the North.
The issue was not raised until after the armistice that ended the Korean War. At the peace talks, the North refused to discuss the topic, insisting there were no abducted civilians except for those willingly converted.
The South Korean government’s handling of the issue has been inconsistent, unlike Japan, which has consistantly called for the North to repatriate the Japanese citizens it kidnapped. On one hand, Korean conservative parties have used the issue to criticize the government’s policy of reconciliation. But most government ministries put the issue on the shelf many years ago in order to avoid tension with the North.
Sa puts most of his energy into compiling evidence. He sticks to facts, even though the film could easily have delved into the dramas and revealing stories of the people who have lost family members.
“I have my own political views about the subject,” he said. “But I’d rather not say [what they are]. My main motive was to present historical facts about people who demand as much attention as other victims in our history, regardless of the political current of our time.”
The film, which recently held a press screening in a church hall, was produced and funded by the Korean War Abductees Family Union, or KWAFU, a group of people whose family members were allegedly kidnapped by the North Korean regime.
According to the film, the abductees include high-ranking government officials, intellectuals, engineers and peasants who are likely to have been kidnapped for retaliation or to be used for intelligence and major manpower for the North’s military development after the war.
Sa put together revealing footage and interviews with North Korean experts, defectors and abductees who succeeded in the nearly impossibly task of escaping. Also included is a secret document from the U.S. Department of Defense that provides the number of abductees and the kidnapping routes.
While the film tries to imagine the life of abducted civilians in the north, it also depicts the lives of family members in the South who were accused by the government of being “pro-North Korean” even after losing their kin.
Politically, the film is a dramatic contrast to “Repatriation,” a documentary from 2004 about unrepentent prisoners repatriated to the North. Yet the moral focus of “People of Return” is quite similar to “Repatriation”: embracing victims of history.
by Park Soo-mee