Director - Zhang Lu
A sombre mesmerizing film about prejudice, division and suspicion. Its message is universal.
This window onto a small, isolated, windswept village of Koreans on the Dooman River in China, across from the North Korean border, is a fascinating film. It opens with a long still shot of the frozen river. This icy divide dominates the screen and dominates the film too, the harsh barrier between two countries.
Set in the depth of bitter winter, the story focuses, though not exclusively, on a young Korean boy, Chang-Ho, and his mute sister, Soon-Hee. As the cold of winter sets in, an increasing stream of defectors try to escape from North Korea over the river. They arrive terror stricken, haggard and desperate. At first the visitors are helped by the villagers, one has even been smuggling them in his truck. As a Korean enclave in China, the characters speak Korean, the signs are Korean, and the collective sympathy lies with the North Koreans as opposed to the Chinese solidiers trying to find them.
Chang-Ho sparks a friendship with a young North Korean boy, who has been coming across the border with a group of children in search of food for his sick sister. They cough and splutter whenever on screen, sick and malnourished. In one awful moment on their return to North Korea, one of their gang keels over dead, the boys investigate and upon realisation shrug their shoulders and keep moving. The film is punctuated by one horrific moment of violence, which triggers a downhill spiral. It is the catalyst, with the increase in theft of food, that replaces a desire to help with a festering suspicion. The fear is infectious and before long it has contaminated the village. One villager remarks, "If a man is starving he will not think twice to sell his parents." The villagers begin to turn on each other and the North Koreans in increasingly more brutal ways.
From the start the village's problems are barely beneath the surface; men standing in the street drinking, a lack of opportunities and a lack of food. These problems and the link to the growing xenophobia are emphasised by Lu. Yet , it is the childrens mirroring of the behaviour that begins to be displayed by the adults that is the key. We see the ingraining of prejudices that will become the status quo for these children in their adulthood. An old woman who keeps setting off on her own stumbling across the river, sometimes being brought back by the North Korean police, is the only link to the past for the village. "When I was young there used to be a bridge here, I crossed it holding my mother's hand many times" she says. Lu makes the deduction, if prejudices are allowed to develop to such a level, people begin to forget there was ever anything else.
The films pace is glacial and it works excellently. It doesn't rush the unfolding events, allowing your opinion to develop over the course of the film. The camera work is often stationary, framing what comes on screen but not interfering. There is no soundtrack at all, the only music is sung by the characters. At night the silence is occasionally interrupted by the shouting of soldiers and gunfire. Lu, argues that music in film is a, "distraction", with the clarity achieved here it, in this instance it is hard to disagree with him.
In one very specific moment, however, the camera does participate more actively. As a sickening act of violence unfolds off screen the camera moves into close up on the television broadcast that triggered it. It is North Korean propaganda, a military march and Kim Jong Il being paraded around a village, the voice on screen telling us how much, "our father loves you and would do anything for you". The villagers transition from saviours to persecutors is portrayed as part of a larger equation, only here is the finger of blame is pointed. Even the Chinese soldiers though merciless and unforgiving throughout are humanized slightly at the end when they play football with the young boys.
It is a brilliant comment on the nature of prejudice and fear. A stunning film that has a loud and clear message. Despite its setting, its themes are applicable universally. It investigates and illuminates the causal factors of fear and paranoia in a society, withholding judgement on those involved. It is a film that deserves a wide audience.