“South of the Border”

14 12 2009

South of the Border (Kukgyongui Namjjok) (2006, 109 min)

Directed by Ahn Pan-seok, the film is the first to deal with the lives
of North Korean defectors in Seoul. The film revolves around Kim Sun-ho (played by Cha Seung-won), who defected to the South with his family, while leaving his girlfriend Yon-hwa behind after promising to bring her to Seoul as soon as possible. In Seoul, he tries to save money to help her escape from the North, but one day, hears that Yon-hwa has
married another man. He becomes hopelessly depressed but later tries to find a way to adapt himself to life in the South…

AvistaZ Asian Movies. Kim Seon-ho, a horn player, is leading a happy middle-class life, along with his elderly but active parents and the married sister’s family. He enjoys an occasional stroll on the neighborhood riverbank and a dish of cold buckwheat noodles. Recently Seon-ho has fallen head over heels for the beautiful museum guide Young-hwa (Jo Yi-jin, The Aggressives), a girl as “fresh and clean as a swig of dongchimi (cold radish kimchi juice made without red pepper).” When his father (Song Jae-ho) takes up a correspondence with his presumed-to-be-dead grandfather, however, things begin to unravel. You see, Seon-ho is a North Korean. And the grandfather, whom the family thought was an honored Communist hero, has been living in South Korea all these years. Threatened with exposure, Seon-ho’s family decides to risk their lives and seek asylum south of the border.

How far South Korean movies about the North-South division have evolved since The Spy (1997) and Shiri (1999) may be seen in the fact that the story of “Over the Border”, with only a few details changed, would make sense in almost any national context where illegal immigration and acculturation are serious social issues. Mexicans in the United States or Moroccans in France would certainly resonate with the Kim family’s experience, their befuddlement, desperation and courage in their efforts to create new identities in a familiar yet strange land, and their sorrow resulting from the inevitable choices they make in order to survive. Considering the reality that more than one thousand “escapees” have settled down in South Korea, some of whom can even make phone calls to North Korea via satellite relay, it is perhaps not surprising that Southerners increasingly look upon the Northerners amidst them as just another group of immigrants.

The greatest strength of TV producer An Pan-seok’s debut film is its almost anthropological approach to the everyday lives of North Koreans and Northerner exiles in South Korea. The painstaking recreation of communal restaurants and concert halls with their opulent but hollow-looking interior design, and an apartment house with its warm-colored but borderline cheesy wallpapers are stunning in their verisimilitude and naturalism: equally impressive are the detailed descriptions of housing facilities and relocation programs for Northerner exiles.

Cha Seung-won, eschewing the comic images familiar from his earlier pictures, is so convincing in portraying Seon-ho’s naive, trusting nature that I basically forgot throughout the movie that, if he were to mingle with North Koreans in real life, Cha would stick out like Gandalf among a bunch of Hobbits. Jo Yi-jin is indeed fresh and clean in her role: for me, like a gush of wind from the mountain top, carrying a fragrance of young pine needles. As a counter-point to Jo’s youth and wide-eyed vivaciousness, the veteran actress Shim Hye-jin (Out to the World, Acacia) delivers an excellent supporting performance as a mature, tough owner of fried chicken restaurant who befriends Seon-ho.


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