Thursday, June 29, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman

The sad truth is many refugees fleeing North Korean are sold into marriage with provincial Chinese men. The sadder truth is this is still usually an improvement in their lives. “Mrs. B.” would know better than anyone. After being sold by her traffickers, she became a trafficker herself. Her life has been grossly complicated by geopolitical factors outside her control, but she will still have to live with the consequences of her decisions in Jero Yun’s guerrilla-style documentary Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Now fluent in Mandarin, Mrs. B. tries to pass for Sino-Korean. As traffickers go, she is one of the better ones out there. Obviously, she has empathy for her customers, some of whom have also been family. Using her network, Mrs. B. smuggled out her two teen sons and her first Korean husband. Somewhat to her own surprise, she now prefers her Chinese husband Jin, but she still misses her sons now residing in Seoul.

Once again, the trafficker becomes the trafficked, when Mrs. B. sets off on the arduous refugee route through China and Southeast Asia. The plan is for the fully-documented Jin to join her once she has established her defector status. However, things get rather more complicated once she arrives. Much to her regret, Mrs. B. finds she and her family are under suspicious of espionage and/or drug trafficking, which in fact she admits to some involvement with respects to the latter.

Mrs. B.’s life and circumstances are acutely dramatic, but they are maybe not as damning an indictment of South Korea’s Cold War mentality as Yun presents them to be. For the sake of survival, Mrs. B. has definitely cut ethical corners and embraced the grey areas of extralegal commerce—judging solely from what she is willing to cop to on camera. Frankly, she probably should be getting close scrutiny from the ROK intelligence service. On the other hand, her Korean first husband is such a broken man, it is hard to believe he could be any use to the North Korean terror apparatus.

To a far greater extent than his pleasantly humanistic short film Hitchhiker, Yun clearly advocates a détente in the Korean Cold War, presumably as a first step towards unification. However, his moral equivalency posited between the rigorous security vigilance of the South and the total state control of citizen’s lives in the North simply does not hold water. After all, the Kim Jong-un regime recently assassinated his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in the Malaysian airport, during broad daylight. Nothing is beyond the pale for the DPRK, so a little paranoia on the part of the South isn’t merely understandable. It’s probably necessary.

That leaves us with an intimate portrait of the fascinating, but flawed Mrs. B. It is very much a story of a divided Korea, but it does not have the wider implications of other defectors’ harrowing but more representative experiences, such as those of Yeonmi Park and Eunsun Kim. Narrowly recommended as an ironic human-interest story, Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman screens this coming Monday (7/3), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.