As the veil of secrecy over the guarded North Korean regime threatens to give way (if only slightly) in the surprising geopolitical climate we find ourselves in today, the film industry in South Korea has also begun to change how it approaches narratives concerning its Northern neighbors. The Spy Gone North made a splash at Cannes in May and then at home in summer for its unusually nuanced portrayal of inter-Korean relations, but as usual, some of the boldest steps are being made in the independent field.
Opening this year's Busan International Film Festival is the local title Beautiful Days, a sober drama about the hardships of life after defection for a North Korean woman and her family. Set in both South Korea and China, the film is the narrative feature debut of Busan native Jero Yun and is centered around the comeback role of local star Lee Na-young, who has been absent from the screen for six years since featuring alongside Song Kang-ho in Howling.
In present-day China, teenager Zhen Chen sets out to track down his mother, who disappeared 13 years earlier. He travels to Seoul, where he finds her working in a low-rent hostess bar. He follows her home after her shift at night and discovers that she lives with an ex-boxer. Upon his unhappy return to China, he reads a notebook she gave him that explains the events that separated them all those years ago.
While the commercial arena concerns itself with political operators and trained killers, independent cinema has been more concerned with the stories of North Korean defectors. Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan, one of the most awarded films to ever debut at the Busan International Film Festival, and its ilk offered fascinating portraits of the difficulties faced by North Korean defectors trying to lead their lives in the South, but these days directors are reaching further back as they investigate the complicated routes they must travel to get to the South in the first place.
Much like the excellent Jeonju Cinema Project documentary A Good Business from earlier this year, Beautiful Days presents the uniquely tenuous circumstances of a defector's life immediately after escaping North Korea. It wouldn't be fair to spoil the dark mysteries of the mother's past, but it's safe to say that Lee Na-young commits herself fully to a character who we witness transform in surprising ways (and in reverse) through several stages of life.
Director Yun has already shown an interest in the plight of defectors, namely through his documentary Mrs. B., A North Korean Woman, and he continues to explore notions of national identify, following his documentary Letters (co-directed with Marte Vold of Norway), which bowed at Busan last year. His keen interest in his subject and devotion to his characters come through crystal clear in a film that employs strong primary colors and plays with depth of field. The cinematography is never less than handsome, yet occasionally Yun's focus is a little too unwavering as shots tend to linger and belabor their points.
Benefiting from better than average mise-en-scene and solid performances all around (Jang Dong-yoon as the son and the always reliable Oh Gwang-rok as his father round out the main cast), Beautiful Days is a pensive and effective social drama that delves a little deeper into an intriguing subject than its predecessors.