Films by defectors express nostalgia for North

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Films by defectors express nostalgia for North


Despite risking their lives to escape famine and political oppression in North Korea, many defectors still feel attached to their homeland. No matter how horrible it was to live there, the North remains their birthplace and was the backdrop for a good part of their lives.
Their nostalgia for home is well expressed in “Young-ok’s Call Not Answered,” a short film produced by teenage defectors attending a special school in South Korea. Produced by Shin Young-ok, 17, and several friends, it was recently released on the Internet portal Daum (, and via SK Telecom and KTF mobile phone networks.
It begins in the winter with Young-ok calling her boyfriend, who is still in the North. The answering machine picks up, and she leaves a message that lasts the duration of the film.
“Hi Nam-cheol, do you remember me? This is Young-ok.”
“Studying is hard here. I was a better student than you in the North...but many South Korean students are better than me.”
“I remember spending time with you and Eun-gyeong on a hill nearby. Do you remember? It was hardly spring, but azalea flowers were already in bloom and I brought them home.”
Towards the end of the call, her voice becomes subdued.
“We can meet again when Korea unifies. Until then, keep the North safe, and the hill and the riverside. I’ll go back there someday. I miss you. Be well.”
The dramatized voice message is paired with documentary footage of the students’ lives in South Korea.
“It is difficult to understand if I talk about it, but by showing a video image, other people could have a better understanding of how we feel,” said Ju Cheol, 23, who shot the film on a digital camcorder. The 11-and-a-half minute film was culled from 10 hours of footage that Mr. Ju shot in his free time at the Set Net School (Three Four School), an alternative institution designed for the special needs of teenage defectors.
An earlier film the students made, “Long Distance Covered,” won an award for portraying the suffering they endured while escaping the North.
“In the beginning I started [making films] out of curiosity,” said Young-ok, a shy girl, who came to South Korea alone in September 2002. “I wanted to show that North Koreans also feel affection and fall in love just like South Koreans.”
Jeon Gwang-heok, 22, Young-ok’s real-life boyfriend, played her former boyfriend, who is still in the North. “I was a little jealous because she had a boyfriend in North Korea. But I understand because life happens like that,” Mr. Jeon said.
Their mentor in the process was 31-year-old Kim Geon, who teaches film and television at their school. He also directed and edited the project.
“I was making a documentary about Set Net School and wanted to get close to the students so I started teaching television and film there,” said Mr. Kim. He added that Young-ok and Gwang-heok are a well-known couple at the school.
The students chose the story of lovers separated by the North-South Korean border for their subject matter on a recommendation from the Sidus FNH film studio, which recently produced “South of the Border,” a commercial feature to be released in May. The movie is about a defector who tries to return to the North to meet his lover again.
In addition to “Young-ok’s Call Not Answered,” the studio has also produced three documentaries about defectors: “Arirang Sonata,” “Until Kim Seon-ho is Born” and “Samsun ― I Dream of Love in the South.”
Young-ok noted that many defectors miss their loved ones in the North, as portrayed in “South of the Border.” “In the South, there are many ‘instant loves’ that heat up really fast and cool down, but North Koreans believe that if you love once, you love forever.”
“In my hometown, azalea flowers will be in bloom soon. Whenever I see them, I remember hanging on my father’s back and saying, ‘I am going to marry Nam-cheol,’” said Young-ok.

by Joo Jung-wan
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