SEOUL — South Korean cinema is teeming with blockbusters backed by big bucks these days, but a local documentary about the lives of former North Korean spies is defying the odds to gain attention, raising hopes for other art films.
When Kim Dong-won completed “Repatriation,” a 12-year labor of love that began in 1992, he did not expect a theatrical release. Screenings through schools or civic organizations, the fate of most documentaries in South Korea, were all that he anticipated.
But the story told by the grainy footage proved too compelling to be lost amid the increasing commercialization of South Korean cinema.
In 1992, a group of white-haired old men were freed from prison after spending 30-45 years behind bars. They were former North Korean spies who had been captured in the South and had refused to sign letters renouncing communism despite persistent torture.
Kim, a documentary filmmaker known for dealing with the harsh realities of South Korean society, met two of the old men through a friend. Driven by curiosity, he recorded their lives for the next eight years until they were repatriated to the North in 2000.
Narrating the film himself in the style of Michael Moore in “Bowling for Columbine,” Kim verbalizes his struggle to understand the long-term prisoners who exchanged their youth for their convictions both admirable and naive.
“Repatriation” screened at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Freedom of Expression Award, becoming the first foreign entry to take the honor. It was also invited to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival to be held in New York in June.
The film was the work of a cinematic pauper, but others stepped in with funds to push it to the bigscreen. The Korean Film Commission supported conversion from video to film. Artplus Cinema Network, an association of art theaters, proposed to co-distribute with Indiestory. KangJeGyu Films, known for blockbusters, offered to bear the cost of making prints.
The film was released March 19 on eight screens under the umbrella of Artplus Cinema Network and attracted 3,200 viewers on opening weekend, a record for a local documentary.
Depending heavily on word of mouth for lack of marketing dollars, it reached 10,000 viewers in the first 10 days, grossing $60,000. Multiplexes have inquired about obtaining it, although Kim has chosen not to expand the number of prints to avoid thinning out crowds at art theaters.
” ‘Repatriation’s’ theatrical release shows that cooperation between makers of commercial films and art films, along with a policy for supporting art theaters, can bring greater diversity to the bigscreen,” says June Oh, the film’s marketer at Indiestory.