The cold, white bleakness dominates over South Korean art house movie “Dooman River”. With its simple storytelling, it presents us an austere view on the world which is alien even to the South Korean audiences. While observing its people, this sad film does not say much, but it eventually shows us the deep emotions below its frozen surface.
I recently watched “Poongsan”(2011), a South Korean movie about a man who can cross the border between South Korea and North Korea in quite an unrealistic way. “Dooman River” is another South Korean movie about another border, but, this time, it is far more realistic. The border is Dooman River between China and North Korea; during cold winter days, the river is frozen enough for North Koreans to use it as an escape route to China. Some of them are lucky to avoid the Chinese soldiers patrolling around the border; others are captured by them and sent back to their country. The movie does not tell you, but I have to tell you this; when they fail to escape, there will be literally hell to pay.
The border area on Chinese side is mainly occupied by Chinese people of Korean descent(They are called Chaoxianzu or Joseonjok). Lots of Koreans left their country during the Japanese occupation in the 20th century, and they chose to stay in that area even after Korea was liberated. While watching the film, you may find it interesting to observe that they use Korean and Chinese both in private and public – the police station briefly seen in one scene with Chinese and Korean nameplates is a good example.
The movie opens with an impressive long take scene with one of its main characters, Chang-ho(Jian Cui), laid on the frozen surface of Dooman River. He is a young boy who lives with his grandfather(Jin-Long Lin) and his mute sister Soon-Hee(Lan Yin). His father died a long time ago, and his mother went to South Korea for earning money for her family(sometimes they get a call from her). It is not so easy to earn money in South Korea as immigrant workers, but people want to go there while waiting for the visa to come. Their quiet town next to Dooman River is not a bad place, but it is drained of hope or new possibility for them.
And the North Koreans keep coming from over the river, usually for the defection. Some kids cross over the river for getting food(You have probably heard about a severe famine in North Korea). Chang-ho and his friends give them food in a rather patronizing way, but the friendship emerges between Chang-ho and one of North Korean kids, Jeong-jin(Jinglin Li). It turns out that Jeong-jin is a good soccer player, and, to win the upcoming soccer game with the other town, Chang-ho tries to persuade him to join his soccer team.
Watching their relationship growing, you will probably expect those typical stories about the friendship over the barrier. However, while it is crucial in the story, the link between these two boys is only one of several small things happening around Chang-ho’s town in the movie. It is cold and difficult for everyone, especially for North Koreans over the river. In one calm scene with unflinching gaze, North Korean kids find their sick friend collapsed and dead, but they just leave behind the dead body. They cannot afford to take care of the body in their hard position.
Although they are not affluent, there is enough compassion among the town people to show warm kindness to their miserable neighbors. One of the town people actually helps North Korean defectors smuggle in China with his truck. At one night, a gunshot is heard, and a desperate North Korean knocks on the door of Chang-ho’s house, and he begs for help to Chang-ho’s grandfather, who gives him a temporary shelter and some food. And Jeong-jin is becoming a more frequent visitor to Chang-ho’s home.
It could be nice if such a relationship between North Koreans and the town people continues like that, but the harsh reality soon emerges like a cold slap in the face. All people in the need of help are not always good people, and, in one painful scene, an act of generosity is paid back with rape. While this uncomfortable scene blatantly points out the cause of North Korean people’s misery, it is handled well with restraint. Meanwhile, several incidents also happen, and the town people are not pleased about that. The mood of the town soon seeps into the children, and, when Chang-ho learns a certain awful fact, the relationship between Chang-ho and Jeong-jin goes into rocky phase.
The director/writer Zhang Lu, whose other works I have not unfortunately watched yet despite considerable praises from our local critics, does not hurry his story in predictable direction. Its ending is somewhat inevitable, but it surprises us with an unexpected tragic turn along with the erupting emotions that have been accumulated behind the screen. It is more haunting because, even at that time, the film firmly holds itself at the distance.
As a Chinese of Korean descent born in Jilin, Zhang Lu knows well about the world he wants to capture on his camera. While quietly watching his actors, he creates a vivid, authentic atmosphere for their cold daily life, which is another interesting thing to observe. There many beautiful moments when the camera shows the frozen river and its surrounding environment covered with snow, and their bleak beauty reflects well the desolation surrounding the characters while functioning as the cover hiding their feelings, like their cold faces.
The actors’ performances are so understated that some can think they are stiff, but they have a certain realistic quality that cannot be ignored. Consisting of professional actors and non-professional ones, they are uniformly good(it’s not easy to tell them apart). The standout is Lan Yin, who deftly handles the emotional state of her character without dialogues. Soon-hee’s impossible situation could be depicted sentimentally, but the movie never allows that; she eventually does what she has to do. By the way, although the main language is Korean, this is the first Korean movie I really needed the subtitle due to their dialect. Now I think I can understand how American audiences feel about the British films with heavy accent.
“Dooman River”, one of the best South Korean movies of this year, arrived late to South Korean theaters. Though it was made in 2009, but it took some time to gain attentions while shown around the film festivals including Pusan international film festival and Berlin international film festival(it won a special award at the latter), and it finally got limited release here in this March. Maybe this is a little too slow, reticent movie to you, but good movies are never too slow, and it conveys us a lot about the people on the border as well as the sorrows hovering around one cold, frozen river. This is a lot more rewarding than “Transformers 3” – as many critics say, real people are more engaging than messy CGIs.