Hot Docs Report: Dear Pyongyang REVIEW

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Since my lambasting from a regular poster of comments in an earlier review of A State of Mind, in which apparently declared my undying allegiance to Kim Jong Il or something (hey, just because I can respect a showman doesn’t mean I’m a commie, McCarthy) I’ve always been of a mind to keep my eye open for documentaries which consider North Korea one of their topics. Therefore Dear Pyongyang was one of my first picks on the Hot Docs schedule.

This film, however, isn’t really about North Korea. Not to say this is a bad film (right away, anyway) Dear Pyongyang is the sometimes touching, often glacially slow, story of a woman’s relationship with her father.

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jon paisMay 6, 2006 12:56 PM

Excellent and balanced review-- McCarthy :)

xMay 6, 2006 1:09 PM

"hey, just because I can respect a showman doesn’t mean I’m a commie, McCarthy"

that's just a classic.

JasperMay 7, 2006 5:46 PM

I saw this film at Frankfurt's Nippon Connection festival recently (a festival that Twitch-ers are strongly advised to go to next year - you'll basically get a far better idea of what is going on in Japanese cinema than at Udine), and I have to say, there is one point I'd disagree with you on here, which is "the filmed visits to Pyongyang feature almost no details about life in North Korea". A large portion of the film is set in her brothers' families' apartments in the capital, so as such it is the most vivid depiction of how people live on a day to day basis in North Korea that I have seen.

This is essentially a personal documentary about her father's sense of pride and national identity and her own feelings of ambivalence about her roots, rather like the film Anyong Kimchee, another personal documentary from a zainichi (Japanese-resident Korean) that came out a few years ago. It doesnt purport to give you any facts or opinions on Kim Jung Il's regime.

And this is what I liked about it. There are so many newspaper articles, sensationalist TV docs and weighted opinions given about life in North Korea, that one is forced into thinking that everyone who lives in the country is quaking under the yoke of this tyrannical dictator, that no one is proud of their country, and every single one of them is living in abject poverty and wishes to flee to a more "democratic" country. This might be true in some cases, but I am really unclear about whether this goes for everyone.

For example, you raise the issue of the powercuts that hit the country every so often. Over half the world at the very least lives in similar conditions. My parents live in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, and they have very strict power rationing there - a couple of evenings a week the electricity would just shut down, simply because there wasn't enough of it to support the population of Nairobi - and remember, Kenya is one of the wealthiest nations in Africa. HOWEVER, no one would say that Kenya is not democratic, that its citizens are living under a repressive regime, that it is part of an axis of evil and needs to be liberated, despite the fact that its population enjoys a considerably lower standard of living and an absence of things like electricity and garbage collection that we simply take for granted.Basically it is a fact of life over there. No one - apart from ex-pats like parents - complains.

I am not trying to justify North Korea in any way, but as we saw from the rather volatile reaction from one reader of your last review of A State of Mind, not only is it impossible to make an unpolitical film about the country, it is also impossible to even raise the subject without inflaming political opinions. What I enjoyed about Dear Pyongyang was that it was a personal story that, by refusing polemic, told me more about the country and the people who live there than any other documentary on the country I have seen has.

misterVTRMay 8, 2006 9:42 PM

I saw this at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and met director Yonghi Yang. This is really a powerful story about family, and creating your own identity.

The director specifically said in the Q&A that there was a lot more that she wanted to say and show, but could not out of fear for the safety of her family back in North Korea. She admitted that there was a lot of self censorship in the film, and hoped that the subtleties spoke for themselves.

Despite the many criticisms in the Q&A, I really enjoyed the film.