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Saturday, Jan. 23, 2010

'Crossing' bares North defector fate

Filmmaker puts harsh spotlight on taboo topic

Staff writer

Every year, poverty-stricken North Koreans risk their lives crossing the border into China to escape the repression and starvation plaguing their hermit homeland.

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Above: A promotional picture from the film "Crossing" shows the father, who crosses the border into China for the sake of his family, embracing his son. Bottom left: The son offers a starving friend noodles on the journey to find his dad. 2008 BIG HOUSE / VANTAGE HOLDINGS
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The price of failure is steep. Getting caught in the North can mean execution or forced labor in one of the nation's notorious gulags. A similar fate awaits those who make it across the Tumen and Yalu rivers into China. If discovered by authorities there, escapees are handed over to North Korea.

But while the plight of defectors has been reported by international media, public interest seems strangely subdued in neighboring South Korea — which accepts over 2,000 North Korean refugees each year, according to the nation's Unification Ministry — one reason filmmaker Kim Tae Kyun said he decided to direct the film "Crossing."

Four years in the making and set to hit a theater in Tokyo this April, "Crossing" has been called the first feature-length film to take a serious look at the plight of North Korean defectors, a sensitive issue that Kim says South Korean intellectuals consciously avoid discussing.

"I've realized that people, especially us South Koreans, tend to avoid confronting the issue of the defectors," Kim said during a recent interview in Tokyo.

"The sheer magnitude of the problem forces our eyes away from it," he said.

While the political situation in the reclusive North has been portrayed in several big-budget South Korean films in the past — the 1999 box-office hit "Shiri" and the 2004 "Brotherhood" to name two — none has concentrated on the fate of its many defectors, whose numbers are expected to continue growing.

Released in South Korea in 2008 and the nation's submission for best foreign language film in the 2009 Academy Awards, "Crossing" was inspired by 25 North Koreans who managed to flee to the Spanish Embassy in Beijing.

The film follows the journey of a North Korean worker living in a mining village who crosses the border into China in search of food and medicine for his ailing wife, only to find himself running from Chinese authorities.

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Direct approach: South Korean film director Kim Tae Kyun poses for a photo during an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo. ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

During his absence his wife dies, prompting his 11-year-old son to risk his life to track down his father in China.

Journalist Jiro Ishimaru, an expert on North Korea and editor of the magazine Rimjin-gang, writes that "Crossing" succeeded in fully depicting North Korea in ways newspaper reports could not.

"I believe that the film provides us Japanese with the best source for understanding the unbearable misery and sorrow being experienced by our neighbors," Ishimaru writes.

"Crossing" marks a stylistic departure for Kim, who is best known for his 2001 high school action flick "Volcano High."

Visiting Japan to promote his newest film, "Higanjima" — an action-horror flick based on a Japanese comic series of the same name — Kim told The Japan Times that although "Crossing" was a commercial flop in South Korea, he was proud of it.

"My desire to direct a film dealing with North Korea grew over the years, but one cannot make movies just because one wants to — it needs to create revenue, it needs to be able to draw customers to theaters," he said.

Despite the film's lack of box office success, Kim said he was "grateful to be able to direct 'Crossing.' "

"I've often received compliments from those who watched 'Crossing,' thanking me for directing the film," Kim said.

"And that gives me the deepest satisfaction."

Kim, 49, recalled how at the time "Crossing" was being filmed, he feared being criticized for undermining then-President Roh Moo Hyun's conciliatory "sunshine" policy toward North Korea.

Because the film touched on sensitive issues, including the depiction of the "kotchebi" street children who beg for food in markets, Kim and his crew filmed most of "Crossing" in secret.

"Back then, I had the feeling that many of the intellectuals would disapprove (of) the film," Kim said. "Since the film dealt with a politically delicate issue, I tried my best to be fair and balanced in what I was making."

Asked what other projects he had up his sleeve, Kim said he had just returned from shooting his most recent film in East Timor.

Sporting a suntan he got while in the Southeast Asian island nation, Kim explained that the film, "A Barefoot Dream," tells the story of a disillusioned South Korean former soccer player who ventures out to start a business in East Timor, only to find his sporting goods shop is a complete flop.

So the main character begins teaching local children how to play soccer, and eventually leads his team to a youth soccer competition held in Hiroshima.

Kim said his crew is pushing to wrap up the film in time for release ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, set to kick off in June.

"We need to get it out before the games start," Kim said.

"I mean, what if the South Korean team loses? No one will be watching a film about soccer then," Kim said.

Kim Tae Kyun's "Crossing" will open at Shibuya Eurospace this April. "Higanjima" is currently playing in theaters.

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