Monday, October 21, 2013

KAFFNY ’13: Seeking Haven

North Korean defector Kim Young-soon is a beautiful woman.  The same is probably true of her sister, Mi-hee, but viewers cannot tell for certain.  That is because her face is kept scrupulously obscured to protect her from potential reprisals in North Korea.  Unfortunately, it might be too late for her already, but her sister will still doggedly pursue any means possible to bring her over the border in Hein S. Seok’s documentary, Seeking Haven, which screens on the opening night of the 2013 Korean American Film Festival in New York.

When we first meet the Kim sisters, they are living in an underground shelter for defectors in China.  They are relatively happy times, because the sisters are together and have sufficient food to survive.  However, they live in the constant fear of exposure and repatriation to North Korea.  Eventually, Kim Young-soon sets off on the arduous journey to lasting freedom, overland through China and Laos to Thailand, where North Korean defectors are formally recognized as legitimate political asylum seekers.

It is a hard trek, involving several narrow escapes from various border patrols, dramatically captured by Seok’s cameras.  Unfortunately, when Kim finally arrives in South Korea via the Bangkok embassy, she learns the Chinese authorities raided her former safe house and deported her sister back to the DPRK.  For the rest of the film, she will periodically return to China, where she will deal with various dodgy brokers, in the hopes they can arrange transit for her family, or at least bring back news on their situation.

Not surprisingly, Kim suffers from a powerful case of survivor’s guilt.  Yet, she is only in her early twenties and fully entitled to live her own life.  Viewers will want to offer her emotional comfort, as they start to suspect the worst for her family.  While just under an hour, Haven contains more reality than a month of network television.  These are real people, feeling real fears, as they face life-and-death situations.

Haven tells a very personal story, but it is also a rather shocking expose, capturing the perils endured by North Korean defectors through a few hidden cameras and considerable chutzpah. While it is comparatively circumspect in addressing the sort of persecution that is an everyday reality in North Korea, this is clearly out of concern for the Kims and other family members of defectors. Nonetheless, the obvious fear of potential repercussions speaks volumes regarding the appalling state of human rights in the DPRK.

Kim Young-soon is an achingly compelling POV figure who hopefully will find peace and happiness in the next phase of her life.  She certainly commands viewer sympathies.  Haven is a gutsy doc, shot guerilla-style in nations like China and Laos that do no respect basic freedoms of expression.  For a touch of celebrity, Moon Bloodgood serves as narrator, demonstrating a nice voice for such work.  Highly recommended, it screens this Thursday (10/24) at the Village East Cinema as part of this year’s KAFFNY.