'Crossing' Depicts Plight of NK Defectors
A story that thousands of North Korean defectors share -- one of hunger, desperation and tiptoeing the fine line between life and death -- makes its way to screens this summer. South Korean director Kim Tae-kyun brings "Crossing," a cross-border film project inspired by true accounts of survivors -- the lucky ones who lived to tell their story.
While big budget action flicks like "Typhoon" (2005) have touched upon the lives of defectors, "Crossing" is the nation's first movie entirely devoted to the matter. It is an unforgettable movie that rouses reflection upon the role of cinema and its power to take people to distant places -- after over half a century of division, the North has become perhaps the farthest place on Earth for South Korea.
The plight of the refugees is not an unfamiliar one here as TV documentaries shine upon the shaded segment of the Korean Diaspora. But "Crossing" achieves riveting, heartfelt drama, making uncomfortable truths palpable and even digestible as it focuses on a bond between a loving father and son.
The movie zooms away from the media-friendly, symmetrical urban streets of Pyongyang and takes us to the destitute rural areas that are home to the vast majority. South Korea's top star Cha In-pyo is Yong-su, a football player-turned-miner who makes a meager yet peaceful living with his wife, son and pet dog. In his free time, Yong-su plays some ball with Juni (Shin Myung-chul) and diligently cleans his TV set -- a precious gift from their Dear Leader Kim Jong-il himself.
However, when his starving pregnant wife contracts tuberculosis, Yong-su decides to make the illegal transit to China to buy medication. He dodges bullets to cross the Tumen River, but more perils lie ahead as the Chinese police trail him.
One day, Yong-su hears about a paid interview for some South Korean agency. But it's too late when he learns that he'll be deported to Seoul. Meanwhile, his ailing wife dies and orphaned Juni ends up in a re-education camp. South of the 38th Parallel, Yong-su pays a broker to smuggle in Juni and spends each agonizing day buying drugs and vitamins for his son.
Free of contrived melodrama, "Crossing" reads like a documentary. Shock flickers across Yong-su's face when he learns that, in the South, T.B. drugs -- which he traded in his entire life to attain -- are free. Cellophane-thin children called "kkotjebi" eat noodles off the ground in the marketplace. Soldiers beat a pregnant woman at a re-education camp. A family smuggling in the Bible disappears without a trace after a visit by secret agents. A woman traumatized by her child's death during the crossing to China piggybacks a pillow. The list goes on, and a Kleenex would come in handy.
But "Crossing" isn't a simple mosaic of harrowing hardships. It provides a deeply human look at the spiritual transformation of a man who risks his life for his hungry family.
"The movie captures not even one tenth of the atrocity in the North," the director told reporters at last week's press preview in Seoul. Indeed, the mise-en-scene halts before the most graphic scenes unfold. But by giving you only a small taste of the direst human suffering, the limitless imagination takes flight.
Nevertheless, the realism is intact. "I had to re-shoot a scene where defectors are taken away by Chinese authorities. One of our defector-turned-staff members saw it and said the resistance isn't violent enough. He told me, 'You don't understand the degree of desperation. You'd bite in the very least,'" said the director. North Korean natives were present throughout the shoot, including the assistant director Kim Chul-yung and a North Korean diction coach.
For the lead actor, his role was particularly heartbreaking because he has a son who's 11, the same age as his onscreen son Juni. "It would probably take my son only a week of starving and suffering to become like those children. But I can't imagine how long it would take to cure defectors and their emotional scars for them to become healthy children," said Cha.
Currently some 10,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea, but they face a second plight -- culture shock, isolation and indifference by the public.
"Crossing" finally opens after four shushed years in the making in remote parts of Gangwon Province and Mongolia. The movie premiered in Washington D.C. in April for the North Korea Freedom Coalition meeting. It is also scheduled to show at the European Parliament in July. Coming to theaters across Korea June 26. 12 and over. 112 minutes. Big House-Vantage Holdings.