Review: ‘North Korea: Beyond the DMZ’

Accompanying a young Korean-American woman named Jikyung on a search for her parents' relatives north of the DMZ, documakers juxtapose her real-life experiences with the myths that have surrounded the North for over half a century. At under an hour, impressively viewer-friendly pic is a good bet for public or cable TV.

Brisk, wry, focused and highly enjoyable docu sets out to explore North Korea, a nation that the United States has fixed on the “axis of evil.” Accompanying a young Korean-American woman named Jikyung on a search for her parents’ relatives north of the DMZ, documakers juxtapose her real-life experiences with the myths that have surrounded the North for over half a century. At a time of increased sabre rattling on both the North Korean and U.S. sides, unpretentious and highly effective docu quietly suggests alternate solutions. At under an hour, impressively viewer-friendly pic is a good bet for public or cable TV.

Helmers JT Tagaki and Hye Park present a straightforward, ultra-compressed history lesson — apparently much-needed, considering the confused responses to questions about Korea during pic’s brief montage of man-on-the-street interviews. Next, docu outlines the 35-year Japanese occupation of the country and the temporary division that followed liberation when Korea was divvied up between the U.S. and Russia.

Escalation of Cold War hostilities rendered the temporary borderline much more permanent. The Korean War, which killed millions of natives on both sides, never officially ended (the U.S. refused to sign a peace treaty and has maintained some 37,000 troops in South Korea since the 1950s), both sides claiming victory in barrages of propaganda.

Docu then moves to Jikyung and her pilgrimage. Jikyng, who was born in South Korea and moved with her parents to the States in time to attend high school and college in New York City, comes from one of the 10 million families ripped in two by the sudden partitioning of the country. For most of her life, she was unaware that parts of both her father’s and her mother’s families lived in the North.

Her quest to discover an unknown half of her family and homeland structures the film. The docu, however, never completely assumes her perspective, and it is not her voiceover that narrates.

The North Korea that Jikyung finds is very different from the North Korea advertised, especially in the West. Fiercely nationalistic and dedicated to a zealous belief in self-determination, with quasi-religious reverence for the late leader Kim Il-Song, the country seems unified behind its collective belief in itself. Even the recent enormous problems caused by manmade and natural disasters have apparently not completely unraveled the social fabric of the country, as everyone is expected to pitch in and help.

Filmmakers make no bones about the absolute lack of individual freedom under the North’s repressive totalitarian regime. Yet, if the attractive family that Jikyng stays with is any indication, the North Koreans have affection and understanding.

The film bears witness to a new desire for reunification on both sides of the DMZ, with a strong suggestion that the biggest stumbling block might just be the United States. One North Korean official implies that his country’s nuclear capability is merely a makeshift version of gunboat diplomacy for a nation that cannot afford gunboats, a bargaining chip whose main purpose is to negotiate the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the lifting of U.S. trade sanctions.

Never simplistic, this Third World Newsreel production casts Korea’s North-South dynamic in a whole new light.

North Korea: Beyond the DMZ

Docu

Production

A Third World Newsreel production. Produced by JT Takagi, Hye Jung Park. Directed by JT Takagi, Hye Park.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Takagi, Park; editor, Dena Mermelstein; music, Ed Bilious,Kristoffer Ricat; sound, Tagaki. Reviewed on videocassette at Museum of Modern Art Documentary Fortnight, New York, Dec. 15, 2003. Running time: 55 MIN. Narrator: Jade Wu. (English, Korean dialogue)
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