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Soup and Ideology: Yang Yonghi’s exploration of the Jeju 4:3 incident through her own family history

It must be a nightmare living with Yang Yonghi: you are constantly being filmed. Yang’s work focuses on her family history, and she has been collecting footage of her daily life since the mid ’90s. When the individual scenes are filmed – conversations, family meals, seemingly unremarkable incidents – the filming must seem without purpose. The purpose comes later, as a specific project evolves, and then Yang stitches together scenes from the archives, and sets up new scenes to take the story further.

Yang’s previous documentaries – Dear Pyongyang (2005) and Sona, the Other Myself (2009) – focus respectively on Yang’s relationship with her father and her niece (who lives in Pyongyang – review here). In Soup and Ideology (2021) the focus switches to her mother, Kang Junghi.

With a title that includes the word Ideology perhaps the viewer is primed to expect a movie heavy on politics. But Yang’s movie is full of warmth, humanity and humour. Early in the movie we have a scene in which Yang’s now long-dead father addresses Yang through her camera, telling her she should get married, and giving her permission to marry anyone she likes. When Yang, from behind the camera, pushes him on this unwonted broad-mindedness, he qualifies his position: she can marry anyone she likes, as long as he’s not Japanese. Or American. Or Korean American. In fact, anyone provided he’s Korean . And provided he is like her father.

Yang's mother makes samgyetang
Kang Junghi prepares samgyetang

The laughs continue, long after her father’s death, when Yang’s fiancé visits Yang’s mother to seek her approval of the match. On a swelteringly hot summer day, Kaoru turns up in his best suit to kneel politely in front of his future mother-in-law. He is Japanese, and a dozen years younger than Yang. Despite these disadvantages, he receives the necessary blessing, and is given permission to change out of his thick suit into something more comfortable. He returns wearing shorts and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, ready to eat the soup that is the celebratory dish of the Yang household – a variation on samgyetang. Preparation of the dish recurs throughout the film, and in the end Kaoru seems to adopt it as his own signature dish as he supports his wife in caring for the mother.

As we learn more about the life story of Yang’s mother, we see in a microcosm the experience of many Koreans in Japan, and begin to understand why many of them favour North Korea over the South. Yang sees a major influence in this being the ROK government’s brutality in suppressing the Jeju Uprising .

Kang Junghi was born in Japan in 1930, of parents who came from Jeju. When her city was firebombed as the Americans sought to accelerate the end of the Second World War, she went to Jeju, having nowhere else to go. Settling down at the age of 15, she fell in love with a son of the local pharmacist, and was engaged to be married. All that changed when the ROK elections were announced in 1948 – elections which would end hope of a unified Korea in the short term. Her fiancé, who joins the leftists on Mount Halla, is killed by government forces, and she witnesses massacres of civilians on the pretext that they are communist sympathisers. Once more she is a refugee, and flees with her younger brother and sister back to Japan at the age of 18.

Soup and Ideology
Yang Yonghi takes her mother to Jeju-do for a reconciliation ceremony

All this the film-maker has to reconstruct from her mother’s increasingly fragmented memories as Alzheimer’s sets in. In this later part of the film, Yang hands the camera over to one of her crew and we see Yang’s and her husband’s infinite patience and good humour in coping with her mother’s dementia. The climax of the film comes when, as part of the Moon Jae-in government’s attempt to heal some of the wounds of the Jeju Uprising, a reconciliation ceremony is organised, and overseas victims are invited to attend. In a heartbreaking moment, Kang is momentarily unable to sign her own name on the visa documentation, so far has her mental condition declined. And when she is taken to the various sites related to the Uprising on Jeju itself, her memory seems to be completely wiped. As viewers though, we are shocked at the number of names commemorated from each village at the official memorial, and shocked at the number of graves.

It is clear that the topic is still a subject of high emotion. While no official records can be found of the death of Kang’s fiancé, Yang manages to track down one of his younger brothers. But he refuses to meet, saying he is tired of the subject.

Soup and Ideology is both a touching and poignant family portrait and one of the few documentaries that touch upon the difficult 4:3 incident. Perhaps approaching the topic through the family story of a zainichi Korean presents a more accessible route than a full-on historical documentary. Reflecting, and maybe contributing to, the significance of Yang’s efforts, the production had the support of a number of luminaries. Park Chan-wook is given thanks in the end credits, as is Kim Sok-pom whose 1970 novel The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost is the earliest work of fiction I’ve come across that deals with the tragedy (review here). Music for the movie is by Cho Young-wuk, one of the biggest names in Korean music direction. And I’m sure there were other names that I recognised as the closing titles flew by.

At two minutes short of two hours, Soup and Ideology is on the long side, but the blend of humour, humanity and painful history means that it does not outstay its welcome. Thanks are due to the Birkbeck programmers for bringing it to the KCC for a London screening as part of the Living Memories season.

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