Dear Pyongyang (Yang Yong-hi, 2006)

“Whether she accepts my ideas or not, I’m glad because she’s all grown up” the father of documentarian Yang Yong-hi insists implying perhaps that he has more respect for his daughter’s questioning nature than she had assumed he might. Deeply personal, Dear Pyongyang is Yang attempting to parse the disconnect between her loving parents’ lifelong faith in the Great Leader and her own upbringing in a much more open society which has encouraged her that she should be free to live her own life and make her own decisions rather than as her father would have it devote herself to a “fatherland” which remains unfamiliar to her. 

As the opening titles explain, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and fell under colonial rule until its independence was returned with the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of the war only to be partitioned in 1948. During the colonial era, many Koreans had settled in Japan, divisions also emerging between them as those who supported the North chose to take North Korean nationality even if in reality from the south. Yang’s father was one such person, having grown up around ardent Marxists on Jeju Island. A member of pro-North organisation Chongryon, he devoted his life to activism campaigning for the rights of other Zainichi Koreans while proselytising for Kim Il-Sung thought. He even sent his three sons “back” to North Korea as part of a repatriation program in 1971 incorrectly believing that the North’s economy was improving, the nation would soon be reunified, and relations with Japan would become normalised. Had he known it would mean an almost permanent separation, he may have made a different choice. 

Six years old at the time and kept behind as the only daughter, Yang attended North Korean schools and was in a sense indoctrinated with North Korean propaganda yet she was also coming of age in Japan where she was free to listen to the Beatles and watch movies while it gradually became obvious to her that the place her brothers had been sent to was far from the paradise they’d been promised. She herself was able to meet with them in 1983 as part of a school trip but even then she was only permitted to see them for short periods of time agreed with North Korean authorities. Permitted to travel back and forth with some regularity she finds herself noting more each time how the images in her mind don’t line up, fixing her gaze on a incomplete tower construction long since abandoned as an ironic symbol of the North’s false prosperity. 

In actuality Yang cannot show much of this in her film for obvious reasons and in the time she spends with her brothers and their families, their lives seem comfortable enough save the odd power cut. Her young nephew has even benefitted from the CDs she used to send his father and is an accomplished piano player. Nevertheless, her mother Yon has been sending heat packs en masse to each of the brothers as well as other friends and relatives after receiving a letter telling her that one of the grandchildren had been suffering frostbite because of the extreme cold. Yon had always sent care packages to her children, so shocked on receiving the first photo of them from the North and noticing how much weight they’d lost that she tore it up rather than let their father see it, but boxes have increased significantly in size as the families grew and she became more aware of the reality of the situation in Pyongyang. Still she and her husband remain loyal to the Great Leader, unable to discern the level of cognitive dissonance in the evidence of their eyes and their faith in North Korean communism. 

It’s the disconnect that Yang can’t understand or forgive, finding it particularly galling that her parents have been supporting whole communities with their care packages but everyone attributes the largesse to the goodness of the Great Leader even though the packages wouldn’t be necessary if the system itself had not failed. Her ideological opposition to her father manifests itself in her desire to change her nationality though opting not for a Japanese passport but a South Korean one that would allow her to travel more easily if also ironically preventing her from visiting her brothers and extended family in the North. Finally he seems to relent, admitting that the “circumstances have changed” and he wants her to have more opportunities in her working life. In any case, even if she lived in the South she would be free to visit him in Japan in a way his sons are not, his exclusion of her from his instructions that his sons and grandchildren should devote their lives to the “fatherland” perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she need not follow his path but should seek her own. Then again perhaps it’s also an acceptance that his life’s work has not turned out as he’d hoped and has in fact robbed him of the company of his children through literal and ideological divide. Even so this moment of compromise allows Yang to begin to bridge a division she thought unbreachable, able for the first time to see her father as just that, longing to hear his thoughts and have him listen to hers only to be immediately robbed of the opportunity. At times raw and filled with a sense of melancholy regret, Yang’s incredibly personal documentary is partly a treatise on the destructive effects of cognitive dissonance and blind faith, but also on the freedom to be found in mutual acceptance. 


Dear Pyongyang streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

US Trailer (Japanese & Korean with English subtitles)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)