Y. David Chung and Matt Dibble's Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People (2007), like many documentaries, chooses to explore a dark chapter in history. The year is 1937 and the place is eastern Russia, where Josef Stalin has initiated a massive ethnic cleansing to deport almost 200,000 Koreans to Central Asia, nearly 4,000 miles west. Stalin determined that the Koreans as a whole were enemies of the state, even dubbing them "unreliable people" before packing them into cattle cars for the long, deadly journey. Along the way, many of the young, sick and elderly died. Survivors settled in and around Kazakhstan, working under harsh conditions while struggling to keep their culture alive. Stalin's 1953 death and the area's 1991 independence from Russia shifted things in their favor, and today the Koreans represent just one portion of the diverse, modern republic. Koryo Saram summarizes the history, deportation and adaptation of Kazakhstani Koreans through interviews, vintage photographs and recently discovered film clips.
Chung and Dibble's film has several strengths, which are evident whether you're familiar with the subject matter or not. Interviews are well constructed, easy to follow and, most importantly, effective in getting their point across. Firsthand participants and witnesses are honest and forthcoming with their personal experiences, many of which are obviously painful without feeling manipulative. To its credit, Koryo Saram also maintains a pleasing balance, showing the survival and perseverance of these people by not dwelling exclusively on darker times. Some documentaries assault their audience, but this isn't one of them.
There are slight drawbacks as well, especially since the short 60-minute lifespan of Koryo Saram doesn't give certain segments the full weight they deserve. It's estimated that 180,000 Koreans were directly affected by Stalin's attempt at ethnic cleansing, and to see this large number whittled down to just a handful of interviews proves to be a little disappointing. Still, the complaint of "we don't get enough material" is, from another perspective, just a testament to the strength of what material we do get. Overall, Koryo Saram's potent mixture of personal interviews, on-location footage and rare film clips provides a somewhat detailed picture of a horrible incident that, simply put, deserves wider exposure.
As for the DVD package by Microcinema...well, it's not exactly "bang for your buck" material. The 60-minute main feature looks fairly rough from a technical standpoint and no extras are offered, which makes the $30 price tag seem all the more inflated. While I'm sure that Koryo Saram will find a following, even its target audience may consider this DVD as more of a rental than a recommended purchase.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in a mixed aspect ratio between 1.78:1 and 1:33, Koryo Saram looks rough around the edges. It's listed as a 2007 film, although narrator Y. David Chung mentions a visit to certain locations as early as 1995...but either way, the bulk of this production was shot on consumer grade videotape and digital video. This footage obviously displays a lot of source problems, from general softness to a limited color palette and muddy shadow detail. Moderate amounts of edge enhancement, compression artifacts and interlacing are also present on this 480p transfer. Older footage is littered with dirt and debris and, in some cases, cropped or even stretched horizontally. In comparison, several vintage photographs look crisp and detailed...but perhaps that's just because everything else looks so bad. The diplomatic version? Koryo Saram is mostly watchable and many of its problems are inherent to the source material.
DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p resolution.
Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, the audio is also lackluster but more forgivable. Chung's narration is entirely in English but many interviewees and background subjects are Korean or Russian, so their words are paired with forced English subtitles for translation purposes only. Most of what's here sounds thin and lacking in overall dynamic range, while some of the heavier accents are often a bit tough to understand. Still, the audio is consistently in better shape than the video...so I can't be too tough on it, right?
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the menu interface is bland but manageable, with 8 chapter stops for the 60-minute main feature. The DVD is unlocked for region-free playback and is housed in an eco-friendly keepcase with no inserts of any kind. No extras are included, which makes the sticker price all the more unreasonable.
Even if the subject matter is new to you, Koryo Saram paints an informative and relatively entertaining picture of lesser-known history. The interviews are honest and affecting, the stock footage is invaluable and even the seemingly mundane landscapes and background images serve their own purpose. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends: Microcinema's DVD is plagued by an unimpressive A/V presentation (further hindered by the source material), zero bonus features and a $30 sticker price. That's a tough sell for any 60-minute documentary, regardless of quality or good intentions. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.