Film review: Sona, the other myself

The third Asia House Pan-Asian Film Festival offered the opportunity to see an unusual documentary. Yang Yonghi’s Sona, the other myself is a simple portrait of three generations of a family – an elderly ethnic Korean couple living with their daughter (Yang herself) in Osaka, and Yang’s three elder brothers and their children who live in Pyongyang. The only girl among the grandchildren is Sona, and perhaps the enigmatic title is intended to imply a special bond between her and her filmmaker aunt.

Sona, aged 3
Our first encounter with Sona, aged 3, eating ice cream

Although the Yang family originated in Jeju-do, the previous generation had moved to Japan during the colonial period for better economic prospects; after the division of Korea, they were lured by the generous handouts and education given to ethnic Koreans in Japan by Pyongyang, and decided to ally themselves to North Korea. The three sons had voluntarily moved to Pyongyang in 1970s to escape discrimination in Japan, at a time when North Korea was not the basket case it is today.

Sona, the other myself should not be judged as a conventional movie in terms of cinematography and production values. It is, in essence, an extended home video, shot exclusively on handheld cameras over a period of around 15 years. In fact, in the earlier years there are frequent comments that Yang shouldn’t film so much because her batteries will run out. Battery technology improved towards the end. The film is of interest because it much of it is shot in Pyongyang, seemingly without the usual chaparoning that occurs when a foreign film-maker enters North Korea. But her North Korean footage is brought to an abrupt end when the authorities find out about her previous film, Goodbye Pyongyang.

Sona, aged 5, at a family burial mound
Sona, aged 5, at a family burial mound

We should not assume that the Yang clan in Pyongyang are a “typical” North Korean family. Being in Pyongyang they are better off than many in the countryside, and in addition they seem to be kept in relative ease thanks to the regular, carefully wrapped, red cross parcels they get from the elderly Mrs Yang in Osaka. Sona has a Hello Kitty T-shirt and Mickey Mouse tights. But nevertheless it’s interesting just to see daily life in North Korea – family get-togethers, visiting the family grave, a visit to the bowling alley, watching one of the grand-children playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s also interesting seeing Sona grow up: the last we see of her is aged 13, with dental brace.

The Yangs’ parcels contain gifts such as kitchen necessities, clothes and – a life-line for one of the sons – anti-depressants. The supply of drugs dried up in 2005 when Japan prevented sales of such medications without a prescription. Sadly, this led to the suicide of one of Yang’s brothers in 2009.

Pyongyang school
Some of Sona's schoolmates

There are no outright criticisms of the North Korean regime in the footage, and observations about the unreliability of public utilities were made without particularly negative comment. The comments are mainly about the relative poverty of their North Korean relatives, and the narrator / interviewer / filmmaker notes that much of the stuff in their kitchen has been sent from Japan.

For those of us eager to see footage of North Korea, there’s plenty to keep us occupied, whether it’s the restaurant of the Pyongyang hotel (steak is available for 480 Yen), the Foreign Currency shop and the famous Mass Games. But the public entertainment never varies: “Every time I come, I hear the same songs at the same place,” observes Yang.

But possibly more memorable than the footage of Pyongyang is simply the warmth of the portrait of the family itself, particularly the elderly couple in Osaka, doing their daily exercises in their underwear in front of the home fitness video, or wrapping up the parcels for their relatives in Korea. The reunions in Pyongyang suffer a hiatus during the height of the abduction issue, and then the grandfather is prevented from traveling by his stroke. But across the East Sea it is the bonds of family connection which linger in the memory.

Written as part of the Korean Film Blogathon 2011

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