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Yodok Stories: A review from the Tribeca Film Fest

Kenneth Crab May 5, 2009

Yodok Stories

(directed by Andrzej Fidyk, 2008)

Concentration camps, totalitarian communist rule, forced child labor in the coal mines… So many aspects of the deplorable living conditions in North Korea resonate as an anachronism, a kaleidoscope of bad memories from the past century. To make a musical out of all this seems shamelessly in tune with today’s knack for instant commodification of humanitarian crises, but in Yodok Stories, one of the must-see documentaries at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it proves an apt means to an end. The project of esteemed Polish documentarian Andrzej Fidyk is to put the North Korean crisis on the map by reversing the message channeled through Chairman Kim Jong-il’s propaganda machine.

Confronted with a complete lack of record, testimony or access when developing the idea for a film about the camps, Fidyk was inspired by footage of the Mass Games – a stunningly choreographed performance spectacle staged as national celebration – he shot for The Parade (1989), so he decided to try and find a North Korean theatre director who had defected and would be willing to helm a subversive theatrical counter-production to this extravaganza. Thus started his collaboration with Jung Sun San, an escapee from the notorious camp site Yodok, whose experience forms the backbone of Yodok Story, the musical.

Fidyk’s film alternates between rehearsal sessions and testimonies by other former prisoners that flesh out the harrowing, invisible reality of camp life. Among the seven stories focused on is that of a former camp guard, and his jovial interaction with people who used to be at the mercy of his random abuse and torture has a surreal feel to it. What binds these exiles together are the absurdity of the reasons why they were imprisoned – as arbitrary as dropping a paper with a picture of Kim Jong-il onto the ground – and the relatives they had to leave behind without any prospect of reunion. The state dictate of ‘guilt by association’ links the two, leading a former bodyguard of Kim Jong-il to stop talking to Jung Sun San after he finds out his family back home has been arrested. The man divulges how the emotionally stunted ‘Great Leader’ was never taught care or concern for anyone else’s suffering, a state of arrested development that has translated into the country’s deprivation.

The isolation of North Korea is no less externally maintained, though, as lack of knowledge dovetails with outright disbelief of the North Koreans’ plight on the part of their neighbors to the South. (The young cast of Yodok Story look thoroughly bemused when listening to the former inmates’ tales of suffering.) Globally, as Fidyk asserts, the only interest in North Korea relates to the nuclear threat posed by Kim Jong-il’s regime. That aside, there is little to be gained from the liberation of twenty million starved, technologically backward people. Therefore the South’s rhetoric of hoped-for reunification is tinged with hypocrisy, and the North seems destined to remain an eerily latent presence in the ‘free’ part of Korea, like the menacing anonymous text messages Jung Sun San receives on his cell phone.

Able to take the camp survivors into the demilitarized zone between the two countries to observe the other side from within walking distance, he has to advertise his show to the North Koreans by packing postcards into balloons and surreptitiously sending them adrift on a favorable wind from the graveyard that is the closest point to the North. Closing credits tell us that Yodok Story became one of the most successful productions ever staged in South Korea. Until it hits Broadway, this concise, sobering film lends sole international exposure to the boldness of its agenda.

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