Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Kimjongilia" is a powerful documentary about defectors from North Korea (2009, Sundance)

In the 75-minute 2009 documentary by  N. C. Heikin, “Kimjongilia: The Flower of Kim Jong Il”, North Korean defectors tell their stories, in Korean with subtitled. 

The film begins with some animation, and in the middle, gives a short 20th century history of Korea. Kim Jong Il  is the son of Kim Il Sung, who was actually born to a Christian Presbyterian family (check Wikipedia here) and took the country into Communism as a “solution” to Japanese aggression during WWII.  What took the man into evil?  Like father, like son?   The film briefly summarizes the Korean War of the 1950s, which ended in a divided Korea.

The film shows how  the Communist state uses stirring music and pageantry to augment the cult of admiration for the dictator, who is seen as a kind of god.  The film has an original score by Michael Gordon that somewhat reminds one of Philip Glass, and has a lot of piano passage work with string orchestra.

One of the defectors was a pianist, who said he was expected as a boy to develop physical strength for common chores and give up his music.

The North Korean government would often go after entire families of defectors, and punish at least three generations at a time, including siblings and sometimes more remote relatives.

Some defectors would escape to China, which would repatriate them if it caught them. But some women were sold into sex trade – buttressing Ashton Kutcher’s campaign “Real men don’t buy girls”.  The film has impressive footage of cities in northeastern China.

A few tried to escape to Mongolia, which does not repatriate.

The film contains an embedded North Korean short, “Girls in my Hometown”, with their “let’s eat two meals a day” campaign.  That segment reminded me of a tedious film “The Flower Girl”, a North Korean film shown at the Washington Square Methodist Church in NYC in 1974, about children trying to get medicine for their mother by working in fields and rice paddies; the endless screed ranted about communal life for over three hours.  I remember leaving before it ended.

In North Korea, citizens normally do not have Internet access, so an "Arab spring"-style dissent is not possible.  Some defectors believe that things will eventually change after Kin Jong Il's death (but there is an heir-apparent son Kim Jong Un), but the country would be ruined by decades of poverty and no economic activity as a Stalinist state.  

The film was produced by Green Garnet and is distributed by Koch Lorber.  

The DVD has an extra, “Unreleased footage and testimony from camp refugees”, in which the pianist performs some “popular music”.

Here’s the official site  The film placed in the 2009 Sundance Festival.


Pictures: from the Korean War Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.

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