Review: Soup and Ideology

Filmmaker Yang Yonghi’s career has been in the service of explaining why her family is what it is, and as with many such endeavors the family itself hasn’t always seemed happy with the attention. Most of this work has been in the documentary field, but she did do one narrative feature, 2012’s Our Homeland, that used actors and a dramatic script to tell the story of her family, perhaps in a bid to make the explanation more accessible to average viewers, who may be less intrigued by the documentary form. Actually, Our Homeland was less intriguing than her documentaries, mainly because it dramatized a situation that had built-in drama, especially for Japanese viewers. Yang and her family are Japan-resident Koreans. Moreover, they identify with North Korea, thus making them pariahs, not only to Japanese people but to other Japan-resident Koreans who identify with South Korea. The story that Yang tells in all her films is played against this background. Her father, born in South Korea, came to Japan during the colonial era and, disillusioned with his lot and that of other Koreans after the war, offered his loyatlies to North Korea with its claims of being a paradise on earth. Moreover, he worked for Chongryon, the conduit association between Japan and North Korea, while his wife ran a restaurant in Osaka. In the early 1970s he even sent all three of his sons to North Korea to live. Yonghi is the much younger daughter who didn’t go to North Korea and in the meantime became a filmmaker. Two of her docs take place principally in North Korea where she filmed her relatives’ lives there. Though her father, who has since died, never abandoned his faith in North Korea, Yonghi herself has always taken a more pragmatic, if not skeptical, view of her family’s path. At the same time, as the member of an ethnic minority in Japan, the country of her birth, she maintains a true outsider’s view of her situation and that of her family.

Soup and Ideology is meant to be a kind of concluding chapter, though she has said there may be room for further exploration. It is about Yang’s mother, Kang Jung-hee, who survived her husband with her loyalty to Pyongyang intact. She continues to send most of the money she makes to her children in North Korea, as if it is not only a necessity but her mission. Yang’s film is rangier than her earlier works, built with footage shot over the course of a decade or so. But in another sense it is her most concise film since it involves a discovery placing her family’s dilemma in a context that is more immediate for the viewer, not to mention more dramatic. In the opening scene, Kang, hospitalized, starts talking about the time she spent on South Korea’s Jeju Island between 1945, when she fled Osaka as a teenager to escape the US firebombing, and 1948. While on Jeju she became engaged to a Korean doctor who was also a member of the local resistance, which objected to the eventual partition of the peninsula. The Americans and the provisional South Korean government brutally repressed the resistance, killing 30,000 people in the process, and Kang had to escape the island under cover of darkness to return to Osaka, where she eventually met the man who would become her husband.

Yang knew nothing of this story until her mother told her in 2015, and most of the movie involves how she comes to grips with it. Using her mother’s first-person recollections, narrative explications by South Korean historical activists, and animated sequences illustrating parts of the tragedy, Yang finds a means of putting into perspective the confusion she has always felt regarding her family’s politics, which she recognized as being impelled by anger and frustration rather than by ideology. Having always wondered why her family had to suffer for their beliefs—a situation that she blames as much on her father’s intransigence as she does on the anti-Korean sentiments held by Japanese society—the over-arching horror of the Jeju Uprising gives her not only a convenient back story to that suffering, but a narrative frame over which to stretch the canvas of her mother’s final days as she sinks slowly into a fog of dementia (she died in January, after filming of the movie was completed).

Which isn’t to say Soup and Ideology is a dark experience. During the time when she was lucid, Kang is a much more convivial film subject than Yang’s father was, a fountain of folk wisdom and cynical, off-color humor who is charming and approachable. Yang also gets valuable support from her new, much younger husband, a Japanese man whose close relationship to Kang is the jumping off point for many of the scenes that reveal more about Yang’s relationship with her mother than anything else she filmed. The results transcend the ostensible journey of self-discovery that culminates in Kang returning to Jeju to face her demons, painting a picture of life for Japan-resident Koreans that was not as raw and vivid in Yang’s previous movies, whether documentary or feature. During a post-screening press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Yang mentioned Pachinko, the bestselling novel by Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee that is currently creating millions of new fans worldwide as a TV series. Much of the novel covers the exact same milieu that Yang’s work does and she expressed frustration that such a multi-generational epic has never been tackled by a Japanese director, since it represents a foundational story of postwar Japan that most Japanese probably know nothing about. It was difficult not to sense behind the remark the feeling that Yang herself thinks she should have been given the opportunity to make such an epic, which says more about Japan’s squeamishness toward its own modern history (not to mention the parochial nature of Japan’s film industry) than Yang’s obvious talents as a director. 

In Japanese and Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Eurospace Shibuya (03-3461-0211), Polepole Higashi Nagano (03-3371-0088).

Soup and Ideology home page in Japanese

photo (c) PLACE TO BE, Yang Yonghi

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