“You and I are not so different” said no character in this movie about a small Korean-Chinese town dealing with North Koreans passing through.
Before we start, just a little context: the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is located in the Jilin Province of China, with North Korea to its southeast and Russia to its…uh…also southeast. It is considered a Korean Autonomous Prefecture due to nearly a third of the populace being ethnically Korean. Many of them have roots going back to the 19th century, while others moved there during the Japanese Occupation of both countries during the 20th century. Because of this large Korean population, however, people from North Korea have often tried to sneak into Yanbian, perhaps assuming that they can blend in. They have to cross the Tumen River to get to China. They may swim through the polluted waters, wade through the shallow parts or, in the case of this movie, walk across the ice. The border between North Korea and China is far less militarized than the one between North Korea and South Korea. That said, due to the…uh…alliance between North Korea and China, Chinese police are pretty active in hunting down North Korean defectors and sending them back. Korean-Chinese have less to worry about, provided that they have their papers with them when going around and can speak Chinese. But North Koreans?
A boy named Chang-ho is asleep on the frozen river. Why and for how long? But he is there, seemingly unfazed by the cold or the dangers posed to others who hang around on the river. When two adults walk over to see what is the matter with him, he gets up and runs off back to the town as if nothing happened. Kids. This is what he does during his winter break?
Well, here are three people who are not okay. It is unclear who they were, but their frozen corpses showed up on the river and the Chinese cops had to drag them to shore.
Meanwhile, Chang-ho runs back to his house for dinner. He lives there with his grandfather and older sister. He tells them that he heard about the corpses on the river. His sister, Soon-hee, interrupts him to say that the river bank is dangerous and that he should not play there. She has been mute since the flood that killed their father, so she has to speak in sign language.
Later, Chang-ho goes the house of his friend, Chul-bu. Chul-bu comes out with a bike and a girl emerges to ask where he is going and tells him not to come back late. Chul-bu tells Chang-ho that she is his cousin, Ok-su, who has come to stay with him and his father after her parents died in a fire while working in South Korea.
Chang-ho and Chul-bu meet up with their three other buddies at an abandoned house. Or an abandoned school. Well, it was supposed to be abandoned. There are four North Korean boys around their age cooped up in there, one of them lying down and coughing badly. His friend, Gwang-chun shines his flashlight at them, and acts hostile when one of them tells him to turn it off. Chang-ho tells Gwang-chun to step back and asks the North Korean boy what his name is. The boy says that his name is Jeong-jin, and Chang-ho introduces himself. Jeong-jin says that they have not eaten for days, and asks Chang-ho’s crew whether they have any food. Gwang-chun acts hostile again, but Chul-bu says that they should help the North Korean boys. Chang-ho says that they will go get something for the North Koreans to eat, as long as they play soccer with them tomorrow. Eventually, Chang-ho and Chul-bu return with some food.
The next day, Chul-bu’s father drives his truck to a seemingly random part of the forest. He opens up the back and four North Korean defectors jump out. He points them in the general direction of where they should go and they leave.
The four North Korean boys are walking inland. The one with the cough falls over. The other three come back to him, declare him dead, and then resume walking.
Chang-ho and Chul-bu are biking on the road near the river when the meet the mayor’s mother. She tells them that she had crossed the river when she was young, and now wants to return. Chang-ho asks her why she would want to go back to a place where people are starving, but she insists that there is plenty of food there. Well, that’s that, I guess, so they leave her to her trip.
They go back to the abandoned school to find it…abandoned. But Jeong-jin stayed, to fulfil his promise. Well, that is what he tells them.
Wait…if he is there and there were four of them, then how were there still four…well, anyways…Jeong-jin and the five Korean-Chinese boys play soccer…sort of.
Chang-ho and Jeong-jin hang out on a windowsill. Jeong-jin tells him that the other boys left for the inland, but he will be fine with anything as long as he does not starve. Chang-ho asks him to join his soccer team to play against a rival team that has been trouncing them for two years. Jeong-jin says that he needs to bring food back to his sister, who is very ill.
Suddenly, Jeong-jin gets off from the windowsill and hides in the building as four cops walk by in the field, carrying what look like machine guns. None of them seem to take note of Chang-ho, so Jeong-jin may have been safe, but better to avoid risking it.
In any case, they leave, kicking the soccer ball around. They pass by Chul-bu’s house and Ok-su comes out. She…uh…talks with Chang-ho a bit before he and Jeong-jin leave. Jeong-jin notes that the girls in this village are not shy at all. She is actually not from around here, but whatever.
Chang-ho takes Jeong-jin to his house and shows him his father’s stamp collection. He says that the stamps from North Korea are the nicest and asks if Jeong-jin could get him one. Jeong-jin has not seen any of these stamps before, telling Chang-ho that stamps are rationed and that he has not gotten one in three years. Soon-hee comes in from outside and Chang-ho introduces them. Soon-hee is a little suspicious, but the phone rings before that conversation can start. It is their mother, who has been working in South Korea. It is a short call, just her checking in. Jeong-jin wonders if she has seen any Americans while in South Korea. He asks about their father. Chang-ho says that he died, but Soon-hee interrupts, insisting that he is alive. Chang-ho tells Jeong-jin about the flood that killed their father and left Soon-hee mute.
Chang-ho buys two blocks of tofu from, Yong-ran, the local tofu maker. She asks him why a dead boy eats tofu. He does not answer; maybe he does not know what she means or maybe it is simply none of her business. I am guessing that it is the latter; that she is referring to Jeong-jin.
Jeong-jin has dinner with Chang-ho and Soon-hee. They have to coax him to eat. When he eventually does, he digs in pretty hard, and his table manners get him weird looks from Chang-ho and Soon-hee.
A few of the older townsfolk are attending the wake of a man who recently died in his house. There had been no one living with him, and this wake had been arranged by the mayor. Eventually, the conversation between the attendees focuses on Yong-ran’s attempts to get permission to travel to South Korea for work. Someone asks how they will get tofu if she leaves…they live in CHINA Whatever. They sing the man’s favorite song, which is about love for one’s hometown by the border.
Before he leaves, Jeong-jin thanks Soon-hee for all the food. Through Chang-ho, she tells him to be careful going back home and to say hello to her sister for them.
The next day, Chang-ho goes gathering wood with his grandfather. At one point, his grandfather stops and tells Chang-ho that he wants to be buried here. When Chang-ho asks why, he replies that he wants to be able to see the river.
Dang. I have been picking stone-cold bummers for the past couple months, haven’t I?
Anyways, while I am treating this as a Chinese movie, it is more of a French-South Korean joint project. Still, it is filmed in China and the director is Korean-Chinese, so that is why it is here.
Not being anywhere on what one might consider a peninsula, Yanbian is in no danger of becoming part of any theoretical United Korea. And, thus, the Koreans of China do not automatically get ethnicity-based citizenship if they enter South Korea the way that North Koreans do. Still, the Ethnic Koreans of the prefecture have a connection to both the North and South, for better or worse. South Korea is the place where there is money to be made. Those who do not just plain-old emigrate there go there to work, sending remittances back to China until they themselves return. Or until they die in a fire the way that Ok-su’s parents did. I doubt that they get treated that well, probably worse than North Koreans get treated.
If South Korea is the land of plenty, then North Korea is the land of nothing. It is just across the river. Many have ancestors from there. A few of the really old people may have come from there as children. It is just a walk across the river from one side to the other. And so, it is the place from which people come…to take food, to take other things, to be a nuisance, to attract the attention of cops with machine guns, to bring all sorts of trouble until they leave for somewhere else. They may move relatively undetected through the cities for a while, but they stick out in border towns like the one in this movie. Some in the town try to help them, like Chul-bu’s father. Others are less charitable.
North Korea is right there. But what do they know about North Korea? Well, probably enough to know that the North Korean propaganda that gets broadcasted on the television is nonsense. But they do not seem to know much else. The Korea that the elders know probably no longer exists. The North Koreans who do pass through do not really tend to talk about their lives much. Jeong-jin seems to be an exception, but even he does not really give away that much either. The only thing that the townsfolk really think about regarding the North Koreans is that they are starving. I had heard that the food situation was not necessarily all that bad in 2010 and the main reason for defecting was due to the unbearable political persecution. But I suppose that a town that has to frequently deal with police patrols cannot really think in those terms. They certainly cannot take out their frustrations on the people who have the authority to gun them down.
The town itself seems pretty…not great. What do the boys do during their vacation? They hang out in one of several hollowed-out buildings. Meanwhile, the girls seem to just stay at home for the most part. I do not see that many younger adults aside from young parents; perhaps they have left for work or have just…left. It does not seem like the town has very much. Things may be different in the city, but they are a bus ride (and a police checkpoint) away from the city. I cannot compare it to other towns in China. Maybe things are the similar regardless of geography or ethnicity. Although, there are certainly a few North Koreans who are starving or sick, perhaps some of the emphasis on that stuff is projection to make the townsfolk feel better about their own circumstances; to draw a fine line between themselves and the foreigners.
Either way, the belief that the North Koreans are starving can let characters look at them with pity, but it could also make characters view them as potential thieves. Jeong-jin, who travels back and forth to bring food to his ailing sister, may be considered a parasite. But what makes him any different from the two guys who hang outside of Chul-bu’s place, regularly downing bottles of alcohol that his father gives them without charge. What do they contribute that Jeong-jin does not? Yong-ran seems to North Koreans as doomed to die soon and not worth wasting her food on. It is not their responsibility to keep the North Koreans from dying of hunger, to keep them from freezing to death, to keep them from getting shot by the Chinese cops, to do anything for them, to not do anything to them. Does she believe that South Korea will think of her more kindly? There is a moment in the second half of the movie that…erm…maybe did not need to have been written that way…but it definitely hardens the line between the North Koreans and the Korean-Chinese. So, what are the kids supposed to think about these people constantly going through their neighborhoods if the adults have no answers?
The movie does not really go into how the Korean-Chinese feel about their own identity or their ties to the peninsula. They just are. At least for those in the town, they tend to speak Korean almost exclusively; their interactions with Chinese-speakers being limited mostly to a nearby shepherd, who seems nice enough, but seems to be oblivious of what the townsfolk are going through. And the cops. Oh the cops. Always around, toting their machineguns, stopping traffic, searching areas. Aside from that, the Chinese seem to leave the town locals alone. So, for long stretches, the only reminder that they are in China comes from the television, where one of the few things in Korean is a channel from North Korea. It is interesting to note that the director and most of the named actors have Chinese names, but all of the named characters have Korean names. I am not sure if that was a misrepresentation of Korean-Chinese on the part of the movie. Still, it implies that the differences between the North Koreans and the Korean-Chinese that the townsfolk may take for granted are not really as clear.
I…uh…don’t really have a way to end this piece. The movie ends kind of strangely as well, so perhaps this is fitting. It is, once again, a difficult movie. Still, I recommend it.
WTF ASIA 154: Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (India: 2014, approx. 95-97 minutes)