Film maker and academic Kim Soyoung was in town last week for a screening of her documentary Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood (2014) in an evening hosted by Chris Berry.
She apologised in advance that we were about to see the director’s cut – slightly longer than what will be the theatrical version, and she thought we might get a little bored.
Actually, once you had eased into the pace of the documentary, it didn’t seem long at all. The film focuses on the migrant communities of Ansan where there is an enclave of Koryo Saram, ethnic Koreans who live in Central Asia, whither they were forced to migrate by Stalin in 1937. The people are more comfortable speaking Russian or Koryo than Korean, and much of the footage of the film is shot in a café run by one of the migrant workers which is called Tashkent. It feels odd to see Cyryllic script among the Hangul signs, but not half as odd as when you see the footage shot in central Asia. The dialogue switches from Russian to Koryo to Korean, as the subtitles make clear that the interpreter is not always being faithful to what the interviewee is saying. It was a slightly disorienting experience for this particular viewer, whose dimly-remembered schoolboy Russian jostled in his brain with sporadically-learned Korean: whatever language was being spoken on screen seemed equally foreign but familiar.
Although we get a certain amount of backstory as to why these ethnic Koreans are now based in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and elsewhere, the focus of the documentary is on the present-day lives of these migrants – not at home in Korea, and those of them in Tajikistan preferring Russia to their current home: living in a state of perpetual exile.
Kim Soyoung is in the process of making a trilogy – which she is calling her Exile Trilogy – of films about Koreans in the former Soviet Union: the second focuses on a group of women who make their living as performers on stage (Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang); the third will focus on a group of film students who left North Korea to study in Moscow and decided to stay in Russia. (Goodbye My Love, North Korea). Fascinating, and well worth chasing down when they are released.
- Towards a Technology of the Dead: Kim Soyoung on Her “Exile” Documentary Trilogy, Senses of Cinema, March 2016