Tuesday, October 22, 2013

KAFFNY ’13: Letters from Pyongyang (short)

If know someone in North Korea, then you have just cause to be concerned for their well-being.  With reports re-surfacing of widespread famine and worse, loosing contact with family in the closed Communist nation would not inspire optimism.  When the annual letters from filmmaker Jason Lee’s uncles stopped coming, his father became understandably anxious, embarking on a family fact-finding mission documented in Lee’s short film, Letters from Pyongyang (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Korean American Film Festival in New York.

Getting into the DPRK requires superhuman bureaucratic hoop-jumping, even from Canada.  After getting more no’s than Stephen Merchant in a singles bar, Lee and his father finally received the requisite approvals for their visit.  However, in a massively anticlimactic turn of events, they learn Lee’s two uncles died several years ago, just prior to embarking.  They continue on anyway, hoping to pay their respects and connect with the family they have never known.

What follows vividly illustrates the stilted nature of tourism in oppressed countries.  The Lees’ minders show them plenty of imposing Socialist monuments, but they are only allowed a brief meeting with their extended North Korean relatives in the lobby of their hotel.  Presumably, Lee the filmmaker has little to say about this conspicuous police state behavior because Lee the nephew is concerned about his uncles’ families.  That is completely understandable but highly problematic from a cinematic standpoint, resulting in too many scenes of Lee and his father duly taking in one epic statue after another.

Documenting family members living under a ruthless regime is obviously a tricky proposition, but Yang Yonghi walked that fine line rather deftly with her more forthright documentary Dear Pyongyang.  Arguably, the more her family members were on-camera and the wider she exhibited her film, the more protected they were as a practical matter.  While perceptive viewers can always glean something from a peak behind the DPRK’s iron curtain, Letters lacks than insight and drama of Hein Seok’s Seeking Haven, also screening at this year’s KAFFNY.  For voracious North Korea watchers, it screens this Saturday (10/26) at the Village East as part of the Forgotten War Shorts programming block.