The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
FAMILY SCHISM. Our Homeland, the Japanese submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, tells the moving story of a family divided by the historic political conflicts between Korea and Japan. The film is screening February 21 and 23 as part of the 36th annual Portland International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest Film Center)
From The Asian Reporter, V23, #04 (February 18, 2013), page 11.
Haunting homecoming explored in Our Homeland
Directed by Yong-hi Yang
Screening February 21 at Regal Lloyd Center
and February 23 at Cinema 21
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
I have never put much energy into imagining North Korea. Part personality cult, part concentration camp, this bizarre country hardly inspires reverie. The film Our Homeland is not without glitches, yet it presents North Korea at a gut level, through contrast with Japan, thus making it possible for the willing viewer to at least begin to imagine.
The story is simple enough. Sungho, sent to North Korea at age 16 under a repatriation program, returns to Japan 25 years later for the treatment of a brain tumor.
The shocking contrast between Sungho and his family, friends, and an old sweetheart overshadows all their touching reunions from the moment of his arrival at Tokyo’s North Korean Association.
Following an absurd sort of ceremony in which thanks are given to Kim Il Sung, "our beloved commander general," while family members stand on opposite sides of a room, Sungho’s sister Rie wraps her arms around her brother. He bends just slightly to allow the embrace, even tentatively reaches out a hand in an attempt to return the gesture, but his posture shows the harrowed, flinching aftermath of trauma.
Released from his sister’s hug, he approaches his father and uncle. Keeping a safe distance, he says, "I’ve arrived," and bows.
Everything goes wrong. His minder, a North Korean agent, prompts him not to forget a "deal," but this bit of subterfuge is not going to come to fruition. The three months he has been allowed for the course of treatment are not nearly enough for his doctor to even begin any sort of medical intervention, and his prognosis, while uncertain, could be very bad indeed. An extension of his stay to six months is under discussion when word comes from North Korea that all of its citizens who are abroad must return immediately.
In a conversation with his sister the night before his departure, Sungho, who has up to this point deflected every question about his life in North Korea, is finally candid: "When you’re in that country, you don’t ask questions, you just follow. Once you start thinking, you start losing your mind. You just think how to survive. That’s all there is. You stop thinking. You just stop."
The glacial pace at which the film moves may try the patience of a number of viewers. In addition, Sungho and his uncle both have emotional outbursts that are painful to watch not because of the distress they convey, but because they are completely unbelievable both as acting and as plot elements.
On the other hand, the visceral glimpse of North Korea that Our Homeland gives viewers, as they watch Sungho’s unguarded moments of looking eagerly around and even reaching out to touch the rest of the world he can only briefly visit, may be worth a couple of drawbacks.
Director Yong-hi Yang was born in Japan of a North Korean family, and Our Homeland is said to be based on her own experience. The ability, and perhaps even more the willingness, to turn such experience into a work of art, however flawed, is deserving of admiration.
Our Homeland is screening Thursday, February 21 at 6:30pm at Regal Lloyd Center (1510 N.E. Multnomah Street, Portland) and Saturday, February 23 at 9:00pm at Cinema 21 (616 N.W. 21st Avenue, Portland) as part of the 36th annual Portland International Film Festival (PIFF). To order advance tickets, call (503) 276-4310. For more information, or to view a complete PIFF schedule, visit <www.nwfilm.org>.
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