Review: True North

Several minutes into this second feature by Eiji Han Shimizu, a Japanese of Korean descent, it’s easy to understand why he decided to make it an animated film. Though there isn’t anything depicted that couldn’t also be depicted easily with real actors and location/studio settings, the nature of the story being told would have probably been pretty expensive. For sure, the computer animation style Shimizu uses, and which he resourced out to a company in Indonesia where he once lived, looks inexpensive, and while the crudeness sometimes defeats the melodrama built into the story, it also makes Shimizu’s plot decisions easier to pull off and, thus, easier to understand.

The story centers on a family of four living in Pyongyang in the mid-1990s. The father seems to be involved in an underground network of people communicating with relatives in Japan, mainly to procure goods that are likely difficult to come by in North Korea. The fact that Shimizu keeps this aspect a bit murky is an obvious way of pointing out that whatever it is these people are doing it is at best quasi-legal, but that hardly matters because before long state security is knocking on the family’s door and searching through their apartment. The whole family is dragged off to a concentration camp, with the father preceding the mother and the two children and disappearing, seemingly forever. The focus is on the son, Yo-han, who grows into a man while spending what will likely be his entire life in the camp. Reportedly, Shimizu spoke with dozens of North Koreans who have escaped from such camps, and the physical and psychological indignites pile up relentlessly: rape, torture, starvation (both purposeful and not), withheld medical care, and a constant barrage of humiliation. When children visit the camp from outside in what appears to be a kind of educational field trip, they make their peers on the other side of the fence kneel and grunt like pigs. However, the most degrading aspect of this kind of captivity is that anyone who displays anything approaching compassion to their fellow inmates faces punishment and even death.

As with most such stories, a little of this kind of suffering goes a long way, and the cardbooard villainy of the guards plays off the stock stoicism of the prisoners in awkward ways that undermine the dramatic component. Yo-han is the only character who’s allowed anything approaching development, and even his arc is pretty predictable, from sniveling, scared child to defiant teen to turncoat factotum to scheming introvert. But while the movie offers little in the way of new information about these camps, Shimizu does manage to inject some suspense into the proceedings and the story itself ends up in a place that you might not expect. Shimizu has said that he made this film in order to show the world what goes on in North Korea—it’s why he decided to make the dialogue in English, which is a little too colloquial, I think—but I doubt anyone will be shocked by what they see here, even though much of it is truly appalling. A documentary of the people Shimizu interviewed might have been more illuminating.

In English with Japanese subtitles. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

True North home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 sumimasen

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