Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기, Yang Yonghi, 2021)

In her 2006 documentary Dear Pyongyang, documentarian Yang Yonghi explored her sometimes strained relationship with her parents whose devotion to the North Korean state she struggled to understand. Her father having passed away in 2009, Yang returns to the subject of her family with Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기) which is as much about division and how to overcome it as it is about her complicated relationship with her mother along with the buried traumas of mother’s youth as a teenage girl fleeing massacre and political oppression for a life in Japan marked by poverty and discrimination. 

In animated sequence towards the film’s conclusion, Yang outlines the political history which led to the Jeju Uprising of 1948. Her mother Kang Junghi was born and raised in Osaka but when the city was all but destroyed in the aerial bombing of 1945, her parents decided to return to their hometown in Jeju. After the war, Korea was occupied by America and Russia and in 1948 an election was due to be held to ratify the upcoming divide. Ironically enough, the Jeju Uprising was a protest against division but brutally crushed by South Korean government forces resulting in a massacre in which over 14,000 people were killed. Then 18, Junghi lost her fiancé, a local doctor who went to fight in the mountains, and barely escaped herself walking 35km with her younger siblings in tow towards a boat which brought her back to Japan. 

There are a series of ironic parallels in the lives of Yonghi and her mother, Yonghi forced to undergo a North Korean education with which she became increasingly disillusioned while her mother was educated in Japanese and obliged to take a Japanese name while living in a Zainichi community in Osaka. Near the film’s conclusion after Junghi has begun to succumb to dementia, she struggles to write her name in hangul on a visa needed to travel to South Korea but is able to recall it in Chinese characters, which also hang outside her home, perfectly. Meanwhile, Junghi was also parted from her family in tragic circumstances and left with a continual sense of absence and displacement. There is something incredibly poignant in seeing her at the end of her life surrounded by the ghosts family members who had long been absent, continually looking for her brother who moved to North Korea where he passed away, and asking for her late husband and eldest son who took his own life unable to adjust to the isolated Communist state where he was denied access to the classical music he loved. 

Resolutely honest, Yonghi admits that she had little patience with her mother and saw her as a burden she cared for more out of obligation than love consumed with frustration and resentment towards Junghi’s devotion to North Korea and decision to send her three sons away leaving Yonghi a lonely child at home. An early scene sees her trying to confront her mother over her financial recklessness, pointing out that she is now retired and living on a pension. She can no longer afford to send the expansive care packages she prepared in Dear Pyeongyang which supported not only her sons and their families but whole communities in North Korea, while as Yonghi points out no one is going to be sending them after she passes away. Denied contact and company, these care packages were perhaps the best and only demonstration of maternal love available to her and the inability to send them is in its own way crushing. 

Sending her brothers away, as she emphasises against their will, was the source of Yonghi’s resentment towards her mother yet on discovering the depth of her traumatic history as a survivor of the Uprising, Yonghi begins to understand, even if she does not condone, the various decisions her mother made throughout her life. Distrustful of the South Korean government having witnessed their treatment of ordinary citizens in Jeju while experiencing a hostile environment in Japan and forced to pick a side in the politicised environment of the Zainichi community, she sent her sons to North Korea ironically believing they would be safe from the kinds of horrors she encountered as a young woman. It is the literal, geographical and psychological division of Korea that lies at the heart of the divisions in Yonghi’s family dividing her ideologically from her parents and physically from her brothers while leaving Junghi orphaned in Japan

Banned from travelling to North Korea because of her previous films, Yonghi wonders how she will one day manage to deliver her mother’s ashes to their resting place next to her father in Pyongyang, but otherwise suggests that bridging the divide is possible not least in her marriage to a Japanese man, Kaoru, who adopts her mother almost as his own patiently taking care of her and learning the recipe for the traditional chicken soup she often makes stuffed with garlic from Aomori and generous quantities of ginseng. Touched by the sight of Junghi surrounded by photos of relatives she is unable to see, Kaoru tells Yonghi that even if they disagree politically they should make time to eat together peacefully as a family. A touching portrait of a difficult mother daughter relationship, Yang’s poignant documentary suggests there’s room for both soup and ideology and that divisions can be healed but only through a process of compassion and mutual understanding. 


Soup and Ideology screens at the Korean Cultural Centre, London on 11th August as part of Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Halmoni (Daniel Kim, 2017)

A Korean grandmother creates a paradise amid the arid lands of Argentina in Daniel Kim’s personal documentary, Halmoni. Underneath the film’s title, the Spanish translation, Abuela, appears hinting at the duality of cultures which the director contemplates while examining the longterm effects of the migration on his family who seem to console themselves with the notion that home is a place where you “live with a fully belly” while his grandmother finds a reason to live in the cultivation of land, planting flowers that will bloom long after she is gone. 

Kim’s grandparents married during the chaos of the Korean War and migrated to Argentina after a fire claimed the school where his grandfather had been working as a teacher. Travelling firstly to Brazil, the family then came to Argentina and received land from the government with a plan of growing lettuce which was otherwise thought unsuited to the terrain though grandfather was confident he could make it work after seeing fields of chicory growing in the same area. Though there have apparently been some problems with money and ownership, the farm now appears large and successful with the family still working it, the grandmother explaining that work keeps her alive and gives her life both rhythm and meaning. 

Yet it’s obvious that life there has not been easy. The land and farmhouse are very remote and when the family first arrived, there was not even a road that led to it. The grandfather and his son made one themselves while the son was later forced to give up on his education in Buenos Aires to help his family run the farm. As we later discover both men later took to drink in disappointment with their lives and eventually died of it. The women of the family who have largely kept the farm going also complain about the extreme cold and heavy snow which further isolate it and trap them in a liminal place that is both Korea and Argentina and simultaneously neither. 

The daughter suggests she’d rather be in Buenos Aires, but when she’s in Buenos Aires all she thinks about is the farm. Later in the film, the grandmother travels to Korea for the first time in 23 years and is moved on realising that she no longer recognises her now middle-aged nephew. Many of her friends and remaining family members encourage her to return to Korea, but she points out that her children and grandchildren are all settled in Argentina while the cultures have become so blurred for her that she lives moment to moment not always sure of what is Korea and what is Argentina. Another woman later says something similar but in Spanish, that if she were to go to Korea she doesn’t think she would feel Korean but neither does she feel Argentinian in Argentina and does not know where she is from. 

Yet the grandmother’s friends also worry for her when she tells them that despite her long years of hard work she has no savings while those who migrated to America or stayed in Korea were often able to find financial stability that will accompany them into old age. Kim briefly includes a scene from home video in which one of the children angrily challenges the grandfather and accuses him of misusing money while also raising some kind of religious dispute which receives no further explanation but hints at a buried resentment and discord within the family which is otherwise absent from the cheerful footage of them celebrating a wedding and coming together with other members of the Korean community. Meanwhile the government is said to have taken back half of their land when the farm experienced financial difficulty and that it was the inability to finish what his father had started that later drove the son to drink. Even so another of the women hurriedly finishes her tea worried that people watching the film will assume they are lazy while a man behind her counters that they should show them that they rest too. The grandmother tells her granddaughter about planting seeds and that some flowers must disappear so that new ones can grow as she patiently tends to her orchards, a hard-won paradise forged in arid land by little more than love and perseverance. 


Halmoni screens at the Korean Cultural Centre, London on 4th August as part of Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories.

Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories

Korean Film Nights return on 29th July with Living Memories, a series of five documentary films screening throughout out August at the Korean Cultural Centre, London, and Birkbeck Cinema.

29 July, 6.30pm: Under Construction (2018)

Birkbeck Cinema

Personal documentary from director Jang Yun-mi following her construction worker father and exploring the impact of his 40 years of labour on his body and mind.

4 August, 7.00pm: Halmoni (2017)

Korean Cultural Centre, London

Personal documentary from Daniel Kim who was born to a Korean family of farmers in Argentina exploring his complex cultural identity.

11 August, 7.00pm: Soup & Ideology (2021)

Korean Cultural Centre, London

Documentary from Dear Pyongyang‘s Yang Yonghi focussing on her mother as she begins revealing tragic memories of her flight from South Korea to Japan during the Jeju Incident of 1948.

18 August, 7.00pm: With or Without You (2015)

Korean Cultural Centre, London

Documentary focussing on two elderly women who were once married to the same man at the same time and continue to live together long after his death.

25 August, 6.30pm: Factory Complex (2014)

Birkbeck Cinema

Experimental documentary exploring the lives of workers in the textile industry from the 1960s onwards eventually contrasting their experiences with those of women in contemporary Cambodia..

Living Memories runs at the Korean Cultural Centre, London, and Birkbeck Cinema 29th July to 25th August. Full details and ticketing links for all the films are available via the official website and you can keep up with all the latest screening news by following the London Korean Film Festival on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.