A Film All Koreans Must See
By Peter M. Beck

Weekly Chosun/Korea Herald
Published 30 May 2008

I have often remarked that I never cease to be amazed at how little concern the average South Korean has for North Korea. Few people seem to care how many North Koreans may starve this year as the threat of renewed famine looms. Even missile and nuclear tests are now non-events. There is a new Korean movie that opens June 5 that I hope will change all of that. Anyone who cares about the fate of the Korean people should go see "The Crossing."

Though it did not win any awards at the Cannes Film Festival last week, "The Crossing" is simply the best film ever made—documentary or otherwise—about the plight of North Koreans. I had the good fortune of watching an advance screening of the film as part of North Korea Freedom Week in Washington, D.C. Attendance was not as strong as I had hoped, but there was hardly a dry eye in the theater and one defector could not stop sobbing after the film ended.

At first glance, this is not the film one would expect from a director, Kim Tae-kyun, best known for churning out fluff like "First Kiss" (kissu halggayo) and "A Romance of Their Own" (neukdae eui yuhok). On top of that, the director cast Asian heartthrob Cha In-pyo in the lead role as a North Korean father desperate to save his sick wife. Yet, in an interview with DailyNK, Kim, 47, reveals that his father was a North Korean refugee who, like my father-in-law, passed away not knowing the fate of his loved ones in the North.

A documentary about North Korean street children (ggotjebi) inspired Kim to make the movie, but it would be ten years before his dream could become a reality. He was repeatedly told that he would never be able to secure the necessary financial backers, and Cha In-pyo turned him down four times before agreeing to take the lead role.

What makes "The Crossing" so powerful is not just that it is a tear-jerker, but that it gets almost every detail right. From the joys and hardships faced by the average North Korean and the unspeakable horrors that take place in the notorious gulags (suyongso) to the perils of crossing into China and Mongolia as well as the difficulty of resettlement in the South, the movie is incredibly realistic. In fact, the director's biggest concern was getting the conditions right. To that end, he met with more than 100 defectors. The only scene where a few of us have questioned the accuracy is when Cha is able to turn on a light in the middle of the night in what might be Hoeryeong.

To say that this is the best film or play to ever depict the plight of the North Korean people is unfortunately not saying very much because few films have been made and those that have have serious limitations. The first film to receive widespread attention was the documentary "Seoul Train" (2005), made by two first-time American filmmakers. It is an important film documenting the underground railroad to get North Koreans out of China, but the production qualities leave much to be desired and it is weighed down by too many talking heads—not exactly a recipe for commercial success. Meanwhile, "Typhoon" (2006) is the opposite—a blockbuster devoid of any meaningful content. The movie focuses on a defector bent on revenge. Unfortunately, this defector lacks any counterparts in the real world. Despite being one of the worst films I have ever seen (defector Kang Chul-hwan's favorable review in Chosun Ilbo notwithstanding), amazingly, the movie stands as the most popular film of all time in Korea with over 4.2 million tickets sold.

The most impressive work I had seen prior to "The Crossing" was the improbable musical "Yoduk Story." Amazingly, weaving songs and dance numberss in between horrific scenes from one of North Korea's worst gulags actually works. In fact, a variation on one of the most powerful lines of the play, when the existence of God is questioned, is also used in "The Crossing." One of the Yodok prisoners sings, "Dear God, are you there? Please don't just take care of South Korea" (abeoji, keogi kyesijyo. Namjoseon eman gajimashigo). Unfortunately, the play was performed at a small theatre at the southern edge of Seoul. Only 200,000 people saw the performance. Gulag survivor Shin Dong-hyeok, who published his memoirs last year, told me recently that no film or play could capture the horrors he experienced, much the way most American combat veterans in Iraq claim that no film—documentary or otherwise—can accurately convey their experiences. However, I am willing to venture that "The Crossing" comes as close to conveying the real situation as is humanly possible.

The question is, will South Korean movie goers invest their precious time and money to go see "The Crossing," even if it is devoid of the "Hollywood-style" special effects found in "Typhoon"? I sincerely hope so. While the film did not win any awards in Cannes, recent news reports suggest that international film buyers showed a keen interest in the film. The director hopes to attract five million viewers, but I would be impressed if half that number see the film. A film like "The Crossing" could dramatically raise public awareness about the South's brothers to the North. Films like "Supersize Me" and "An Inconvenient Truth" have helped tens of millions view McDonalds and global warming in an entirely new light.

Finally, we must ask an even more difficult question. To what extent will this film be smuggled into North Korea? We know that South Korean dramas and films are seeping into the North via the porous border with China, but will North Koreans want to see how a South Korean director portrays life in their country? Pianist Kim Cheol-woong, who defected from the North because of his love for jazz music, thinks he has the answer. He told me that after viewing the film, he thought there was a real possibility of ""The Crossing" Effect" taking hold in the North, thereby encouraging even more North Koreans to flee their homeland. I cannot help but wonder if Seoul is prepared for such a possibility.

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007
A Brewing Revolution, Oct. 2007
Talking-points for The Sejong Society, Feb. 2008

Return to The Koreas Lately
Return to KSS-Main