January 19, 2013

Dear Pyongyang: A Daughter's Quest for Love From a Father She Fails to Respect

In the Japanese documentary Dear Pyongyang, you do learn some important basic facts about the history of Korea, like how it was occupied by Japan in 1910 then liberated after World War II then split in two shortly thereafter, a split which became more definitive following the Korean War in the 1950s. The film also talks about the Zainichi, the ethnic Koreans who continued to reside in Japan after their homeland's liberation. In the land of the oppressor, these proud nationalists set up Korean schools or emigrated to repatriate as citizens in North Korea. And while director Yang Yong-hi professes to want to know the story that led to her father's and mother's fervid revolutionary efforts on behalf of the Zainichi and North Korea for 50 years, she's actually a lot more interested in getting her dad to accept her complete disavowal of everything he stands for.

Because of that, Dear Pyongyang can feel painfully personal. The seemingly good-natured teasing that exists between parent and child -- as they discuss whether she can marry outside her nationality or devote her life to something outside the cause -- eventually deteriorates into something akin to psychological torture. As the years pass, Yang Yong-hi's quest for acceptance recognizes no limits; her persistent needling of her father eventually veers into the horrific. Late in the movie, her father bedridden with some unnamed disease and his face half-paralyzed, Yang persists in pressuring him to confess his regrets, to let her be who she is without question, to recount old memories he's already shared, until he's finally driven to tears. As he pulls her hand to his mouth, it's as if he's trying to get her stop by biting her. There's something downright ghastly about it. And pretty riveting.

So while Yang spends much time dismissing North Korea, the lives of her relatives who live there, the selfless support they receive from her parents, she ultimately ends up this movie's villain more than commie leaders Kim Il Song or Kim Jong Il do because her mercilessness is depicted so intimately. This is an expose of the filmmaker as much as one about North Korea or a man who fought hard on that country's behalf.

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