'Quiet' and 'meditative' aren't words I'd generally pick to describe a heartbreaking family documentary about the genocidal bill-of-goods sold to Koreans living in Japan, by Kim Il-sung and North Korea's current dictator Kim Jong-Il, but that's what Asian reserve will get you, I suppose. Director Yonghi Yang's years-in-the-making documentary burns with all the fire of a tea light in a cold breeze, slowly working its way through layers of clothing until it sputters in your heart. It's a measured journey into that which can't really be known, speaking volumes about family, politics and more. It, like Yang's aging father, grows almost imperceptibly, hanging answers just out of reach over the void.
At 107 minutes, Pyongyang condenses decades of history while little happens save a family visit or two. That's the nature of life for Koreans in Japan, who found their families 'returning' to North Korea after the split, even if they had ancestors born in what is now South Korea, and even if they were born in Japan. Kim Il-sung's revolutionary prowess and cult of personality made North Korea look like a communist paradise to tens of thousands of Koreans living in Japan, many of whom emigrated from the land of the rising sun to the land of no electricity. Of course they had no idea at the time, of what would befall North Korea, and certainly were unprepared for the fact that they would be effectively cut off from their families who may have remained behind.
It's the situation Yang found herself in during the 1970s. Her Korean born parents were effective organizers in the movement to venerate North Korea in Japan. So effective, in fact, that her three older brothers decided to become 'returners' too, even while the youngest was only fourteen-years-old. Since that time, communication with the brothers has been incredibly constricted, though she and her parents have made the long journey by ferry a few times. Her documentary, Dear Pyongyang, attempts to make sense of both what has happened to her family, and also of her father's political ideology. Yang is clearly left leaning, and seems to be also looking for ways to heal the huge rifts in her life.
As something of a mild centerpiece, a journey to Pyongyang to celebrate her father's 70th birthday (although he's 75 by the time they make the trip) is filled with raw emotions almost completely subsumed, and carefully observed details of both North Korean life, and family life in general. Yang presents a constant POV - you never see her, except in photographs, and only at the very end do you see her hand emerge from behind the camera. So at first glance her home movies of the lives of her parents in Japan and brothers in North Korea seem remarkably normal. Dad's an aging, doddering gentleman who in later years is prone to fits of giggling and reminiscence - he's not too keen about being on camera, but is quite the typical grandfather figure. Her brother's families seem quite usual too, playful, cheerful kids, reserved wives, and few hints of the oppressive regime under which they've been living.
However out in the city, things are different. The port into which they ferry features three tower-blocks with signs on top; "Lightning Assault," "Blitzkrieg," and "Crush All Enemies." Piles of red peppers lay on the gray streets of the grim concrete city - there drying to be later used in kim-chee, and the unfinished pyramidal Ryugyong Building looms in the background, a symbol of all that has gone wrong in the country. Other sites captured by Yang are even more striking, such as huge political rallies full of grand precision and forced passion. But at the core of Yang's exploration is her attempt to understand her parents, primarily her father, and as she keeps the camera focused on them she learns just how much they have done, and sacrificed, for 'the fatherland,' and for her and her brothers as well. Yang's documentary is both a fascinating glimpse into little-seen North Korea, and an incisive, insightful examination of what it means to have a family.
Filmed entirely on a handheld video camera, Dear Pyongyang is presented in 1.33:1 fullframe ratio. As such, it looks like a high-quality home video, albeit a professionally edited one. Of course the images themselves are far more important than the quality, but for the sake of it, I'll mention that Yang's camera lends a slight fisheye lens quality to many scenes, and aliasing makes itself known on occasion, however there's nothing that becomes a glaring or distracting problem.
Dolby Digital Stereo Audio is mostly at the service of the handheld camera's onboard microphone. Presented in Japanese and Korean with English subtitles, dialog is relatively clear, and subtle, beautiful soundtrack music never intrudes.
Extras are limited to English Subtitles, a Trailer for the movie, and other Typecast Releasing Previews.
Yonghi Yang's quietly passionate documentary comprises years of work in service of understanding her father's allegiance to North Korea, and the impact of having brothers who 'returned' to the fatherland in the '70s, only to be almost completely cut off from the family. As a primer on Koreans in Japan, and the history of Korea's split, it is a fine jumping off point, but as a rare glimpse into North Korea, and a thoughtful examination of the universal aspects of familial relations, it's transcendent, carefully considered, and quietly powerful. Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
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