Korean American Film Festival New York 2013 Commemorates The Korean War Armistice With A Vivid And Illuminating Program

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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The Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY) always includes an impressively eclectic collection of features and shorts, and this year's 7th edition is no exception. However, for the first time, the festival is organized around one specific subject: the Korean War and its impact on Koreans both in Korea and the U.S.  

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice between North and South Korea, which never officially ended the war but only established a cease-fire. With North Korea in the news very often these days, the features and shorts playing KAFFNY this year provide valuable background in understanding the origins and the lasting effects of this conflict. One need not imagine some alternate history in which the Cold War never ended; one only has to visit the heavily armed DMZ between the Koreas at the 38th parallel to find a place where this ideological conflict remains alive and well. The pain of separated families, the casualties of war, the influence of the war on the Korean diaspora: these subjects and many more are covered in the KAFFNY fest films offered this year, happening at Village East Cinemas from October 24 through 26.

In keeping with KAFFNY's usual diverse slate, there will also be short films outside the Korean War theme, as well as a screening of Shin Su-won's acclaimed festival film Pluto. But the Korean War themed features and shorts are this year's main focus, and below are my recommendations for particularly noteworthy films. For more information on these and other films in the festival, visit KAFFNY's website.

SEEKING HAVEN (Hein S. Seok)

Seeking Haven, part of KAFFNY’s opening night program, is one of several films in the festival that convey the pain of Korea’s national division in intimately human terms. This brief (51 minute) yet powerful documentary follows Young-soon, a North Korean defector who fled with her sister Mi-hee to a safe house in China. Unable to afford the smugglers’ fees that would have allowed them both to travel to South Korea, Young-soon alone made the treacherous journey (documented vividly here, often using hidden cameras) from China, though Laos and Thailand (where North Koreans are given political asylum, without fear of repatriation), and eventually to freedom in South Korea.

But this freedom comes with a steep price: Young-soon is separated from her family. Their safe house in China is raided, and Mi-hee is sent back to North Korea, where she is placed in a camp for political prisoners; worse, Mi-hee becomes fatally ill, subsequently languishing in a prison hospital. Young-soon decides to take the risky step of returning to China, where she attempts to broker her sister’s release from prison with bribe money, as well as smuggle Mi-hee and their father out of North Korea.

Seeking Haven tells an intensely emotional story, and gives a full sense of the dangers and sacrifices necessary in order to escape the North Korean regime. This is often placed in the hands of often unscrupulous smugglers, who in some cases prove to be more concerned with covering their own asses and squeezing whatever money they can out of transactions than with the desperate people who depend upon them to gain freedom. As is often the case with politics and ideology, human lives are tragically caught in the middle, and as Youngsoon finds, it often becomes necessary to wipe one’s slate clean and begin a new life alone.

(October 24, 8pm)

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KAFFNYKorean American Film Festival New York
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