During this year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN), a stunning announcement was made when it was revealed that nine films from North Korea would be screened during the fest. Shown so as to, “…keep pace with the rapidly changing international situation and the current atmosphere of peace on the Korean Peninsula“, that these films are being shown publicly is a giant leap forward in global cinematic opportunities.
To put the gravity of the situation into better context, here’s the explanation from BIFAN:
“This special screening is the first official screening of North Korean films following the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, and is the first instance that such films have broken free from their status of being ‘limited releases’ to being freely shown to South Korean audiences. North Korean films and videos are currently considered to be ‘special data’ according to relevant statutes and are screened on a strictly limited basis. Even when permission is granted for a screening, the film is ordinarily categorized as a ‘limited release’ that is shown to a select group of people who have been chosen after going through a strict process and procedure; that is the convention that will be broken during the special screening at BIFAN.”
So when presented with the opportunity to see one of North Korea’s films, I think you can all understand that I couldn’t pass up the chance, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t a genre title. That’s how I and a friend came to see The Story of our Home.
Based on the true story of 18 year old Jang Jong-hwa, North Korea’s “child mother“, the film follows a young woman who takes it upon herself to become the parent of three recently orphaned siblings. Tensions arise between the oldest sibling, Un Jong, and Ri Jong A, the young woman who decides to care for them, as there is only a few years of difference between them. Un Jong believes herself capable of taking care of her younger brother and sister but as her own grades slip and threats of her family being separated come closer to reality, she must reluctantly accept the help of Jong A.
While rather schmaltzy, there is an insidious thread that runs throughout much of the film. Everything these children do, or are told to do, is all for the benefit of the Republic. Even the youngest sibling, brother Un Chol, wants to become a soccer player not for fame or fortune but to bring honor to the DPRK.
While there are some beautiful shots, director Ri Yun-ho clearly wanted to try everything he could, employing Michael Bay-esque swooping cameras around characters, sharp and jarring edits, slow motion, and first-person perspectives. And with each passing moment, there was this strange yet fascinating marriage of past-meets-present, such as how the film stylistically looks like it was shot in the 1950’s or 1960’s but was in reality a 2016 production, indicative of the limitations of film resources. There are also signs of technological advancements as we see many characters using cellphones and flatscreen TVs on the walls of classrooms. There’s also an interesting product placement for a supposedly well known cosmetics company in North Korea.
As the film progresses, it moves from cloying sentimental sweetness to shocking full blown propaganda similar to the works of Leni Riefenstahl. There’s simply no other way to put it. We see Jong A praised by the Korean People’s Army for her selflessness in taking charge of these orphans. She is shown talking to a large gathering at a government assembly where women in traditional robes openly weep and men dressed in uniforms have tears in their eyes. We even have a scene where Jong A returns to her home to multiple people presenting her with bouquets as her mother approaches her, tears in her eyes, beyond proud of how Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un touched her hand and called her “girl mother”. One of the film’s final shots is Jong A with the three children bowing to large golden statues of Korean leaders with ear-to-ear smiles on their faces.
Everything becomes clearly motivated by how people and their actions must be there to serve the greater good of the DPRK. There’s nothing of any sort of relaxation or personal enjoyment shown at any point. The national holiday, where Jong A and the three children celebrate with a feast, is second to the joy they experience hoisting North Korea’s flag. The youngest sister, Un Hyang, wants to be a music teacher and serenades her siblings and Jong A with patriotic hymns. There is no joy permitted unless it’s also supports and venerates the DPRK. From my Western perspective, it’s absolutely mind-boggling. I knew that this existed but actually seeing it is a completely different story.
Were I to review this movie, it’d get a 2/5, most likely. It’s not a great movie but by god was it one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences I’ve ever had the opportunity to partake in. Just as interesting was the audience reactions. Comprised mainly of South Koreans, there was laughter at the overly dramatic moments but an almost bored silence throughout much of the film. When the credits began rolling, people got up and left, seemingly without being affected. Meanwhile, my friend and I were stunned. What we had just seen was something that clearly would never leave us.
Editor’s Note: with thanks to Meniscus