The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Tribeca ’09: Yodok Stories

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Anyone who keeps up with international news (or even the haranguing cable-TV misfits purporting to practice “journalism”) probably knows that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, home to the last remaining Stalinist-style dictatorship and the most isolated nation-state on earth, is a place of almost unfathomable misery. While psycho despot Kim Jong-il plays brinksmanship politics with his ballistic missile program, food shortages and mass starvation afflict the countryside. State terror, dictatorial decrees, and indifference to basic human rights are a fact of life there as well. Foreigners and press are mostly barred from entering the country, and sometimes from leaving, as in the case of two female American journalists from Current TV who sneaked across the border in March and are now being held captive somewhere inside the “hermit kingdom,” as 60 Minutes dubbed it, despite diplomatic efforts to free them. Sealed off from the outside world—independent media are nonexistent, ditto for the Internet and credit cards—citizens are fed a constant diet of propaganda and inculcated in the cult of personality of their sociopathic and nuke-obsessed Dear Leader.

In the wake of Bush’s infamous, inflammatory Axis of Evil speech, a number of earnest, level-headed docs (A State of Mind, Crossing the Line, Kimjongilia) have drawn attention to this system of domination and the scale of suffering behind all the warmongering American rhetoric, affording Westerners a bracing rare peek at daily life behind the Asian Iron Curtain. But the goings-on at North Korea’s secret network of labor camps, where so-called enemy citizens suspected of being hostile or disloyal to the regime are carted off to be interrogated, raped, tortured, and forced to live an animal-like existence, often for seemingly innocuous remarks or guilt-by-association “crimes,” has never been documented. Polish director Andrzej Fidyk’s Yodok Stories, which made its North American premiere at IDA DocuWeek and screened at the 2009 Tribeca Fim Festival, chronicles the efforts of a Seoul-based theater director to shed light on the horrors of these notorious penal colonies, or kwan-li-so, where few who enter (currently about 250,000 inmates) ever leave.

Revisiting footage from his 1989 film The Parade (a/k/a Defilada), which ogled the lavish, meticulously orchestrated spectacle of North Korea’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Fidyk was struck by the formidable artistic talent of those who coordinated these mass events, part Cirque du Soleil–style acrobatics and part Rose Bowl halftime-show pomp. In Seoul, he tells us in voiceover, he located Jung Sun San, a theatrically trained DPRK defector and former inmate at the Yodok camp, and proposed the idea of staging a musical that would draw on the actual experiences of survivors to bring attention to the plight of those left behind. At first, Jung refused, perhaps not wishing to revisit such painful memories, but relented after weeks of discussion. Two years later, the resulting Yodok Story became the most successful musical in South Korean history, even traveling to the States for a run in 2006. The graphic accounts of those who’ve escaped range here from an elderly grandmother to a rural-peasant-turned-mechanic to onetime members of Kim Jong-il’s elite inner circle, including a former bodyguard, and most intriguingly of all, a concentration-camp jailer now living in South Korea. Although Fidyk cuts frequently between Jung’s backstage preparations and dress rehearsals for his bullwhip-accented, darkly fascinating stage show, it’s a far cry from the melodramatic mist of Les Misérables or the sing-songy antics of A Chorus Line, as the interviews he conducts with escapees—all participants or performers in the production—give these tightly choreographed, Broadway-worthy sequences the heft and urgency of a lurid truth finally disclosed to the world.

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Keeping his editorial interjections to a minimum, Fidyk adopts the stance of a patient and sensitive observer, dropping in on the conversations between Jung’s company members and the teach-ins they lead to help South Korean nationals in the troupe understand the exact details of what they’ve witnessed or endured: stress positions, metal-rod whippings, fierce guard dogs trained to attack the smell of human rot, and virtual entombment. To his credit, Fidyk steers clear of gunning for any art-as-therapy premise, and the film never builds to a big “payoff” moment for the audience, though it does ease toward a kind of spiritual reconciliation for one participant. In the somber, cathartic life-world of Yodok Stories, the musical’s triumphant journey to the stage is epiphenomenal, never the dramatic centerpiece or a major focus of concern. Jung himself is committed to artistic verisimilitude: in terms of set design, costume, sound, and stage action, the onstage tableaux are modeled as closely as possible after the milieu of the real-life camps, providing a backdrop for the tales of trauma that emerge on-camera.

Dividing his film into discrete sections, each corresponding to the candid personal recollections of individual refugees, Fidyk introduces his talking heads with a mournful musical leitmotif and text detailing their term of internment—over a decade, in some cases. Kim Young Soon is one former detainee, a dance instructor who bitterly and tearfully recounts watching her 8-year-old child perish in the camp where she was held. Kim Hyok tells how he was caught illegally crossing the border into China to work menial day jobs for a sack of rice, then matter-of-factly reveals the fate of a child who was skinned and eaten by starving villagers. Lee Young Kuk, a fishmonger who was once a member of Kim’s elite personal guard, describes how his father—a high-ranking secretary—committed suicide after making a lightly critical remark about a government policy. His entire family was jailed as a result, as Communist figurehead Kim il-Sung decreed that three generations of enemy citizens face retribution for the actions of an individual relative. Corroborating the victims’ stories of beatings, executions, gang rapes, forced abortions, and other atrocities is a former camp guard, bespectacled and mild-mannered, who patiently demonstrates for the company the exact techniques he used to brutalize his prisoners. Later, he joins Jung and others for dinner, where he’s gently ribbed for his erstwhile crimes.

While it would be difficult to critique a film whose aims are so baldly honest and humanistic—Jung apparently put up his own kidney as collateral in order to fund his Yodok Story musical—there is fortunately no need. Comparable in testimonial spirit (if not scale and stylistic achievement) to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus, Fidyk’s modest, probing film is skillfully edited and compelling throughout its brief 83-minute running time. Obviously, Fidyk wants us to bear witness to and, in a sense, authenticate the experiences of his sorrow-laden subjects, many of whom still have relatives in the North whose fates are unknown to them, as cross-border communication is forbidden. At a moment when the U.S. is debating (or, more precisely, trying to forget) our government’s own recent history of suspending the rule of law and torturing presumed enemy combatants, the voices of these survivors should make us ashamed that we do not hold our principle of universal human rights as dearly as we thought. “Some things in life need to be mysterious,” opined Wall Street Journal pundit Peggy Noonan on ABC’s This Week when the torture memos surfaced. No, they don’t—not unless we’re willing to adopt “Forget Guantánamo, Forget Abu Ghraib” as our new national slogan, or remain blind to our own nascent barbarity. Like democracy itself, Yodok is a state of mind, an ideology that can travel anywhere it finds a willing host.

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