Here's a summary from Koreanmovie.com and a synopsis from the site:
In the film, Yong-su (played by Cha In-pyo), a North Korean living in a mining village in Hamgyeong Province, crosses the northern border with China to get food and medicine for his ailing wife, only to find himself on the run. His 11-year-old son (Shin Myeong-cheol) also risks his life to trace his father in China.
Now, Korea loves melodrama -- I'm not going to theorize on why, but let's just say this, is a TYPICAL, not an exceptional Music video:
Anyway, because of this propensity toward bombast, my expectations weren't TOO high, heading into Crossing, because I knew the topic ran risk of veering wildly into melodrama, but it managed to treat its subject with at least a modicum of grace. This was good. Even when we saw that Yong-su has a dog, and everybody who knows Korea thought, "Heh. This is Korea. . . I know what's gonna happen to that dog". . . they managed to treat Whitey's mysterious disappearance as a sad surrender to poverty, without overdoing it until it became a punchline.
As with most sad movies, the first thing they do is show you some people living a basically happy life, and you see enough of them to decide you like them, and want good things to happen to them, before bad things start happening to them (cf Dancer in the Dark). In reading up for this post, I learned here that the film was written after extensive interviews with North Korean defectors.
At first, I was a bit cynical, thinking things like, "I like this character too much. . . she's definitely going to die." But, when bad things start to happen, the filmmakers mostly told the story, and didn't spend TOO much time telling viewers how to feel. Mom coughs. Later, she passes out during the town meeting. Turns out she's pregnant and has tuberculosis from malnutrition. Medicine for pregnant women with TB is hard to come by in North Korea, but Yongsu, the father, has a friend who is a trader bribing his way back and forth to China, who is also surreptitiously handing out bibles. Then other bad stuff happens, and some more bad stuff, until Yong-su has to go into China himself to try and get medicine. . . and then he'll come right back! But then other stuff happens, so that he might not be able to come back, and his son has some bad stuff happen to him (no more spoilers today!) and needs to cross into China to try and find his father. My favourite character was Misun, the cute daughter of the bible-smuggling trader. We see her at the beginning, and then we meet her again later, and her character arc is one of the sadder ones (though nobody's going to quite out-tragedy Yong-su).
I won't say the film is completely without melodrama: I'm sure one entire round of auditions for the actor who plays Joon (the son) consisted of nothing more than, "OK. I'm gonna point a camera at you, and I want you to cry convincingly, and say these words while you're crying". . . but the use of slow-motion and echoing shouts of despair as the world falls silent didn't slide into overkill, nor did the silent montages of "remembering the happier times," and frankly, the movie was touching, and the ending was very appropriate. The acting, too, was well done, and the two children especially impressed me, given that making bad things happen to children in a movie is the fastest way to generate pathos, but also runs the greatest risk of slipping into bathos (mawkishness), but the kids never quite went too far, nor did the filmmakers.
There are a few sad conversations about heaven prompted by the missionary character and his daughter: "a place where I won't be hungry?" "I hope they have still rain there" and by the end of the movie, heaven's function is mostly just to be the place where certain characters can finally see. . . certain other characters. . . again, if ever. In fact, that seems to be what's playing behind the ending credits: all the characters in the movie are eating and playing by a riverside, including the ones who wouldn't be able to attend an earthly riverside picnic. There's also one angry speech asking, "Why does Jesus only help the South? Is God's help also only for the rich?" Those questions remained unanswered in the film, and yeah, the hope of heaven is mentioned, but in the face of thousands of starving people who need FOOD, too much talk of heaven would become problematic, and the filmmakers were wise not to dwell on it.
But this is the puzzling thing:
I'm going to talk about this movie in my classes next week, and see how the response is: so far, the times I've sent out feelers, most South Koreans seem not to really want to see this movie. Too much of a downer.
I'm of two minds here:
In one way, I think South Koreans kind of think of North Korea the way one might think of a deadbeet brother who, every time you send him a christmas card, writes back asking if he can borrow money, or insults your kids. Yeah, he's family, but it's too frustrating, costly, and draining to expend mental energy toward him. I've sensed this kind of dissociation toward the North, even just in the time since I've come here, people in the south feel more ambivalent, less connected, with the north. Less willing to help. And yeah, if your brother either insults you or ends up costing you money every time you see him, wouldn't YOU dissociate yourself, too?
on the other hand, I'm also outraged that Koreans can be so complacent about SUCH a desperate situation, so close, to people who are their great-uncles and second-cousins. It's only by a trick of geography that South Koreans were lucky enough to be here instead of there when the Military Demarcation Line was drawn. . . how can you write off your own kin? In my darker moments, I think that South Korea's apathetic attitude toward what's happening in the North (other than insofar as Kim Jong-il might have weapons that threaten the south) is the ultimate refutation of Koreans' claim to have that mystical "jung" -- some deep connection between humans that only Koreans could experience or understand. How could you claim "jung" -- some deep, humanizing connection between Koreans, when many of your own are starving to death and eating dirt just to remember the feeling of having something in their stomachs, and you won't even go to a damn movie about it (prefer watching schmaltzy music videos where the tragedy's fictional, I guess)? The filmmakers had a hell of a time even finding funding for their movie, because South Koreans keep NK at SUCH an arm's length. Investors didn't think the film would make any money. No jung, gentle readers. No urgency? No feeling of need to have this story told? No jung.
It's not often I feel it quite THAT strongly, but those are the two extremes.
But the fact is, every Korean I've mentioned this movie to so far has been somewhere from passively reluctant to actively resistant to seeing it, and Girlfriendoseyo also told me that most Koreans probably WON'T see it, because they don't like to think about North Korea (which, in my mind, is EXACTLY why every Korean SHOULD see this film.)
And that's the puzzle of North Korea.
(PS: articles from 2001 and 2003 on human flesh for sale in North Korea's black market.)
(all photos from google images)
(Update: thanks, Joshing Gnome, for the link and the kind write-up)
(Update 2: after bringing "Crossing" into my conversation classes this morning, it's been about a 50/50 split between students who want to see the movie and ones who won't. Had to mention it, for the sake of fairness and full disclosure.)