Monday, March 11, 2013

Korea On My Mind

Many Americans, when they think of World War II, focus their thoughts on the European Theatre of Operations which involved conflicts with dictators in Nazi Germany (Adolf Hitler) and Fascist Italy (Benito Mussolini). Following Emperor Hirohito's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was forced into a war with Japan that resulted in the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Following World War II, the Allies split Germany  into two states (West Germany and East Germany). Its capital, Berlin, was divided into four sectors which eventually became West Berlin and East Berlin. When the Berlin Wall (which had been erected in 1961 at the height of the Cold War) was torn down in 1989 and the two parts of Germany were reunified into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990, Berlin once again became the country's official seat of government.

Since August 15, 1945 (popularly known in the United States as V-J Day), the international community has witnessed astonishing changes along the Pacific Rim. Japan and China have undergone remarkable transformations and become powerful forces in the global economy. Although the Korean War ended nearly 60 years ago on July 27, 1953, most Americans think of that war in terms of Robert Altman's 1970 film, M*A*S*H, and the popular television series which became a spinoff of the movie.

While Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, and Hot Lips Hoolihan may have endeared themselves to millions of Americans, their war-time antics were far from the reality faced by many Korean families. The division of the Korean peninsula by Allied forces following World War II according to the 38th parallel has been a constant source of political tension and familial grief.

Ever since Kim Jung-un succeeded his father (Kim Jong-il) in December of 2011, North Korea has been flexing its military muscles. One of its intelligence officials, Kim Yong Chol, recently threatened a “diversified precision nuclear strike against the U.S. imperialists” during an appearance on North Korean state television.

North Korea's new Supreme Leader, Kim Jung-un

This week, North Korea announced that it had abandoned the 1953's Korean Armistice Agreement. Here in San Francisco, however, 2013's CAAMFest (formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival) includes several intriguing films about Korean families.

* * * * * * * * *
In their 30-minute documentary short, filmmakers Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsay Liem pay homage to the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War by explaining how Allied Forces separated Korea into two parts. In Memory of Forgotten War, Korean-American senior citizens (including some who were innocent children at the time of the Korean War) describe how they amused themselves by using peanuts as toys and earrings. They also describe what it was like to live without food and look forward to the candy given to them by American soldiers.
A family photo from Memory of Forgotten War

Those who managed to rebuild their lives in South Korea were not allowed to communicate with family members who remained behind in North Korea (until the families who fled South migrated to the United States and, following the end of the Cold War, were able to re-establish contact with their relatives). Their reunions with brothers and sisters whom they haven’t seen in six decades are heartrending, as is much of this excellent documentary.

* * * * * * * * *
Seeking Haven focuses on one Korean family's trials and tribulations. Although more than 20,000 North Koreans have built new lives for themselves in South Korea, many find it difficult to adjust because of poverty, discrimination, and cultural differences. Their devastating loneliness motivates some to try to reunite with relatives who have been left behind (or attempt to smuggle them out of North Korea). In Seeking Haven, a determined young woman gets caught up in the "Chain of Escapes" phenomenon.
  • In 2007, Youngsoon and her sister Mihee were hiding in China. Fearing repatriation, the two sisters decided to make their way to South Korea. Unfortunately, they only had enough money for one person to go and, by that time, Mihee had an infant to care for.
  • Believing they would soon see each other again, Youngsoon left China first. Upon arriving in Bangkok, she received word that Mihee had been arrested and repatriated to North Korea. As a result, Youngsoon entered South Korea alone.
  • In order to get Mihee out of North Korea, Youngsoon returned to China (where she hired a broker to enter North Korea, where Mihee was being held at a prison camp).
  • Several months later ,Youngsoon was able to contact her father in North Korea. He told her that Mihee was not being held in a camp for political prisoners but was in a labor camp, instead. 
  • Youngsoon left for China once more, hoping to bring her father out of North Korea and find out exactly where her sister was being held. But after hiring another broker to enter North Korea, she was confronted with shocking news. Instead of bringing Youngsoon’s father back across the Chinese-Korean border, the broker told Youngsoon that two years prior, when Mihee had been repatriated, authorities had launched an investigation into her past and discovered that after North Korea’s nuclear test at Musudan-ri, Mihee had sent someone to collect soil samples from the test site. As a result, Mihee’s entire family was now under constant surveillance by the North Korean government.

The documentary follows Youngsoon as she flees from China to Thailand, gets a fake passport, and tries to maintain contact with her father by using a Chinese cell phone. Later, as she settles in South Korea, Youngsoon continues her efforts to get her family out of North Korea. As the film's directors explain:
"We first met Youngsoon when she was 20 years old. Terribly shy, she mumbled in response to all of our questions. Youngsoon reminded us that the North Korean defector issue extends beyond politics and diplomacy, that the true tragedy is rooted in the effects laid upon families and their homes. Youngsoon shared with us her deepest concerns and emotions. Together, we have cried and laughed. We followed her for three years, starting with her escape from China through to her first day at the University in South Korea. We were there with her as she tried desperately to bring her family to South Korea. We were privileged to have such access during the most vulnerable period of her life. For three years, she has repeatedly said to us that ‘If I hadn’t left home, I might have been hungry but at least I could have been with my family.’ We did our best to capture all the events and emotions Youngsoon went through. Our hope is that the audience will walk away from this film feeling one step closer to North Korean defectors as fellow human beings."

* * * * * * * * *
Just as there are films about the cruelty done to man by his fellow man, there are also some miraculous tales of strangers offering shelter. From 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank to 2012's In Darkness (which told the story of a small group of Ukrainian Jews who hid in the sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation), the desperate desire to alive has proven to be a constant source of inspiration.

In 2009, Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan stunned audiences with his breathtaking depiction of the rape of Nanking entitled City of Life and Death. Like many silent films and early noir movies, City of Life and Death demonstrated how vividly telling a story in black and white can lend dramatic power to a stark narrative. This year's CAAMFest features a powerful new Korean film directed by O Muel which is based on real events. Subtitled "Requiem for the Dead and the Living," the director explains that:
"There is one incident that exists in this Jeju Island, consciously and unconsciously in peoples’ hearts. The Jeju 4.3 Incident is the story I have tried to ignore. However, I realized that the event was something I can’t avoid through my life, like meeting my parents when I get back to the hometown. The Jeju 4.3 Incident was a natural encounter for me. Still, there are lots of hidden stories that could vanish someday because some people want to forget. By telling this story about the people who lived here in Jeju Island and tried to survive in the dark and cold cave, I wanted to soothe the pain deep inside our heart that lives in the present time and the dead souls of the Jeju 4.3 Incident. I wanted to let people know and share that this event is the assignment for this society -- not for just one individual -- and that this is the one we need to solve in life."
Koreans hiding in a cave in Jeseul

The story needs little elaboration. In 1948, as the government issues the order for the eviction of communists to South Korea's Jeju Island, an elderly woman who can barely walk begs her son to leave her behind and save his own life.As the military invades her calm and peaceful village, some of her neighbors seek refuge in the mountains.

One man, worried about his favorite pig, returns to town where he is soon shot and killed. The young man who volunteers to see what has happened to the pig farmer comes across the burned remains of his home, with his mother's charred corpse.

Unfortunately, the baked potatoes he brings back to his friends in hiding don't last very long. As they try to survive the bitter cold of winter, people began to suffer from increasing hunger and disease. With little left in their lives except fear, frigid temperatures, and a growing sense of futility, some wonder whether they should move to a higher mountain or remain in the cave.

A tall, idealistic young man (who thinks he can outrun a soldier's bullet) volunteers to act as a decoy to distract the soldiers and lure them away from the cave. After 60 days, the group is found and slaughtered.

In the above still, a naked man stands to the left of the tree, where he has been bound and gagged while awaiting his punishment. The stark winter landscape highlights the foolishness and needless brutality of war. The frightened, starving villagers have nothing to eat, nothing to look forward to, and could barely contribute their breath to any kind of war effort.

The reported death toll from the Jeju Uprising is 14,373, although estimates range as high as 30,000 (mostly civilians). But there's no need to worry about any spoilers. Everyone dies.

What sets Jiseul (potato) apart from so many wartime films is its ravishing and and deeply moving musical score (composed by Song-e Jeon and Ji-sun Seo. Jung-hoon Yang's haunting cinematography is reason enough to see this film. Here's the trailer:

No comments: