An extraordinary, powerful documentary tracing filmmaker Kim Dong-Won’s relationship with a group of “unconverted” North Korean political prisoners, “Repatriation” was more than a decade in the making and culled from some 500 hours of shot footage. This deeply personal tale is neither conventional profile in courage nor routine political polemic, but rather a carefully balanced, constantly evolving portrait of life then and now on both sides of the world’s only still-divided country. Winner of the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance, long but rewarding pic will have a bright future as a fest item, with limited theatrical and television distribution also foreseeable.
Like the recent “Stone Reader” and the films of Ross McElwee, the special power of “Repatriation” derives from the fact that film’s journey is as much one undertaken by the filmmaker himself as by his subjects. One of the founding fathers of Korean documentary filmmaking, Kim began work on what would become “Repatriation” quite by chance when, in 1992, two former North Korean spies, now senior citizens, were released from their lengthy prison sentences in the South and placed in a nursing home in Kim’s own neighborhood.
Intrigued by the disconnect between these men’s avuncular appearances and the fact that they have, for more than 30 years, held fast to their communist ideology and refused to “convert,” Kim started following them with his camera as they began assimilating back into civilian life.
With the warm, compassionate Cho Chang-Son (who eventually becomes something of a surrogate grandfather to Kim’s children) as his guide, Kim is allowed access to an entire network of similarly unconverted ex-prisoners, all staunchly opposed to becoming South Korean citizens, all pining for the day that North Korea will allow them to be repatriated.
While Kim is initially somewhat startled at the sight of these geriatric men literally singing (in the form of old Communist Party work songs) the praises of the North, he respects their commitment to their beliefs and their indomitable spirit that allowed them to survive decades of harsh imprisonment. Hence, “Repatriation” becomes not only the story of the ex-prisoners struggling to return to their homeland but, just as importantly, the story of Kim’s own quest to sift through the windfall of political propaganda between North and South to find a humanistic common ground.
In structuring this epic, Kim has veered toward intimate moments of intense emotional resonance and, given the 12 years spanned by pic (at one point during which Kim was himself arrested on charges of violating national security), there are plenty of them: Cho meeting with converted former comrades, their tears of shame saying more than mere words ever could; Cho revisiting the very site where he was first captured, shedding his own tears for fallen brethren. But Kim always keeps one eye fixed on a broader portrait of contemporary Korean society, offering a vivid sense of what it means to live in a divided nation and why the dream of reunification remains such an important one for so many Koreans on both sides of the border.
Shot on a variety of film and video formats, and incorporating some priceless archival footage of newsreels and television programs about the “communist menace,” pic’s tech aspects are aces by docu standards.