Monday, November 05, 2018

HIFF ’18: Little Pyongyang (short)

New Malden is part of a London swing district that has periodically changed hands from the Conservatives to the Liberal Dems (but interestingly, Labour has not been in the mix). It also happens to be home to approximately 600 freedom-seeking North Korean immigrants, making it the largest concentration of North Koreans outside of the Korean Peninsula. Joong-wha Choi is a leader of their small community and an outspoken human rights advocate. Frankly, we fear for his safety, given the methods employed by the Kim Dynasty for dealing with its detractors, but the better-known he becomes, the harder it will be for him to disappear. Yet, Choi seems untroubled by these concerns. Instead, he is plagued by persistent survivor’s guilt, as he explains in plain-spoken terms throughout Roxy Rezvany’s intimate short documentary, Little Pyongyang, which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

There are about six hundred people who can truly appreciate how Choi feels, but his children are not part of that sub-set. He tries to explain how bad things were, but they just do not get it. Choi misses many things from his homeland, but conditions got so dire in the 1990s, he had no choice but to leave. A few years later, he was reunited with his mother for a matter of months, but that maybe made their ultimate parting even harder. Not surprisingly, Choi’s emotions are mixed regarding his new suburban London home, but he remains unflaggingly critical of the appalling living conditions and utter lack of individual freedom in his native North Korea.

Choi does not just talk the talk—but merely speaking out against a petulant tyrant like Kim Jong-un takes guts. However, he also volunteers a great deal of his time to help new arrivals from North Korea acclimate to life in England. Honestly, it is tough to watch Choi beat himself up, because he is clearly a good man.

This is also a very good film. It is part of a batch of short docs presented under the banner of The Guardian newspaper, but it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field. That almost sounds like a case of damning with faint praise, but it is important to understand Rezvany’s film is deeply humanistic, displaying none of the extremism viewers would expect from the Guardian imprimatur. It is also boasts some unusually well-crafted visuals for a short doc, which is a nice added bonus.

Frankly, Little Pyongyang will make viewers want to get involved (Liberty in North Korea is a good resource to start with), which was probably one of the main goals. Very highly recommended, Little Pyongyang screens this Friday (11/9), as part of the Mind the Gap shorts program at this year’s HIFF.