Tag Archive | "documentaries"

Five Documentaries About Life in North Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Life in North Korea is largely unknown to much of the outside world. The following five documentaries provide insight into the lives of North Koreans and the challenges faced by those who try to escape.

1. Under the Sun (Available on Netflix)

This is Pyongyang, presented virtually without comment.  By Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky, Under the Sun was originally begun with the sanction of the North Korean government. Throughout filming, Mansky was able to hide additional footage, which eventually made up the final documentary. It shows the main subjects, a young girl and her family, recording scenes over and over, with a government official off-screen directing every word, every movement, every smile captured by the camera.

If there is one critique of this documentary, it is that the lack of explanation makes this film inaccessible for viewers who are not well-versed in what’s going on in the DPRK. When I mentioned this to a Russian-American friend, however, she pointed out that this film was made with a Russian audience in mind – an audience that would immediately recognize some of the details in staging that Americans may miss. In any case, this is certainly an interesting and unique look into what the North Korean regime wants the outside world to see.

2. Crossing Heaven’s Border

This Emmy-nominated documentary by a South Korean journalist follows the desperate journey of North Korean defectors fleeing to freedom. It’s one thing to read that defectors have to endure a harrowing journey, it’s another thing to watch them crawl through miles of dense jungle, desperately trying to escape detection.

The journalist released a book of the same name a few years later, giving more of the backstory of how he decided to follow this journey, and the difficulties he and his crew endured (not to mention the defectors they were trailing).

3. The Lovers and the Despot

Truth is stranger than fiction, particularly when North Korea is involved. And this may be one of the most bizarre stories of all, involving a kidnapped actress, her unsuccessful savior, and a movie-loving dictator.

Kim Jong-il was notorious for his love of movies, and directed many films over his lifetime.

In 1978, he decided that he needed new talent to star in his projects, and decided to lure prominent South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee to Hong Kong, where she was kidnapped by North Korean agents. Her ex-husband, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, attempted to find her, and wound up in Pyongyang as well.

The most fascinating piece of this film is the actual recorded conversations between Kim Jong-il and his captives, which the two secretly recorded in part to prove that the crazy story of their disappearance truly did happen. This is a must-see for casual or more serious DPRK-watchers.

4. I am Sun Mu (Available on Netflix)

This film shows a very different side to the plight of the North Korean people – following a defector artist who is pushing back against the regime. Sun Mu (a psedonym that means “no boundaries”) was once a propaganda artist in North Korea. Now, after having escaped, he has turned his art into satire against the regime.

The film follows Sun Mu as he prepares for an art show in China, a bold and dangerous proposition considering the close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. This documentary is must-see for casual and professional North Korea watchers alike.

5. Frontline – Secret State of North Korea

Using secret footage smuggled out of North Korea as well as defector and expert interviews, this film is aimed mainly for a general audience that may not know much about North Korea. A lot of the focus is on how North Korea has changed, including the emerging black market. This project is a great introduction into life in North Korea today.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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5 Interesting Documentaries about South Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Historically, local documentaries have not been that popular in South Korea – the first commercially successful documentary in the country was 2008’s “Old Partner,” which shattered domestic records just by attracting 100,000 viewers in the first few weeks after its release. Since then, more independent films have begun to crop up, telling real-life stories about different aspects of Korea. The five films below represent some of those stories.

1. Twinsters (2015)

Imagine waking up one day after living 25 years as an only child and finding out that you have an identical twin. This scenario is not just for dramatic soap operas – it really happened to two Korean adoptees. Twinsters follows Samantha Futerman, who grew up in the United States, and Anais Bordier, who grew up in France, as they get to know the twin they never knew they had. While this film is about the two women and their growing relationship, it also touches on broader themes related to international adoption and what culture and heritage means for these adoptees as they get older.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

 2. Reach for the Sky (2015)

The hyper-competitive Korean education system is not a new subject, but Reach for the Sky approaches it from a somewhat new angle – Repeaters. These students choose to spend a full year after their high school graduation focused only on improving their college entrance exam score with the hopes of getting into a better university. The film follows a group of these students throughout their repeating year, telling through them the story of a society where the name of your university can determine the course of your life.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) here: http://reachfortheskydoc.com/#

3. My Love, Don’t Cross that River (2014)

 This touching film about an elderly couple and their 76-year marriage was a smash success, becoming the most commercially successful independent film in Korea’s history. Slow-moving but never dull, the film lets the couple’s love speak for itself – like when 98-year-old Jo Byeong-man throws leaves on his wife while raking their yard, her exasperated response indicating that this has happened many times before. In this way, the film successfully portrays themes of love, family, and endurance without any need for narration or explanation.

Available for purchase (DVD and streaming) through Amazon Video.

4. The Battle of Chosin (2016)

This PBS special retells the pivotal Korean War battle of the Chosin Reservoir through the eyes of troops who fought there in 1950. Often known as the “Forgotten War,” the experiences during the Korean War nevertheless played a key role in shaping how Americans approached the world for the next 50 years. This film helps put the Chosin battle, and the experiences of the soldiers who fought there, into this wider perspective.

Available on the PBS website.

5. Even the Rivers (2015)

A brief but helpful introduction into some of the challenges faced by multicultural children in South Korea. Based on interviews with students, parents and teachers, this film touches on the ways Korea has become more multicultural, and what that means for the children who are growing up and going to school in a country that was, until very recently, entirely homogeneous.

Available to watch free on Vimeo – information on the film’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/eventherivers/

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Epping Forest DC’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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