Our Homeland is director Yang Yonghi’s first feature, after her two acclaimed documentaries on how her brothers’ lives were in North Korea, together with a comparison with life of her and her parents’ in South Korea. Yang’s focus is always on her family, immigrant’s identity, separated Korean family and divided ideology.
An interview with Yang Yonghi, writer/director of Our Homeland
How would you describe yourself as a film-maker?
I’ve never imagined I’d be a film-maker, but after I made a documentary, people started to call me a director and I was like, OK. I was born and raised in Japan, second generation Korean; both my parents came from Jeju Island in South Korea. Even though my parents were born in South Korea, they chose North Korea as their Fatherland due to their ideology and hard experience.
After Korea became independent, they were living in Japan because during the war, they moved to Japan from South Korea. In Japan, the status for Korean people was really worse than trash: no human rights, strong discrimination. My father decided to become a human-rights activist. At the time, South Korea was very politically insecure: the military government. Also, there was a severe massacre happened in Jeju Island, South Korea in 1948, and my parents lost a lot of friends and relatives: they were killed. Then my parents were like, no more South Korean government. They totally stopped believing the South and they chose the North. Though they really knew nothing about North Korea, they had great expectations.
At the time, socialism was kind of a hope for many people all over the world, maybe. Also, Kim Il-sung made a beautiful speech for Koreans in Japan. For Koreans, the South Korean government totally ignored them while North Korea kind of, played a beautiful role (as shown in Kim Il-sung’s speech): if you choose North Korea as your Fatherland, we are going to give you houses, medical care, education and jobs. So why don’t you come to North Korea? It’s your Fatherland. And then my father totally fell in love with his speech. My father’s ideology was not logical, very emotional, like mafia, Yakuza people, you know, the feelings, that he couldn’t betray oyabun, the boss. But by and by, they came to know the reality of North Korea but they just couldn’t deny everything in their lives and that’s why they still try to believe in that country and they need to pretend to believe in the country because they have hostages: children, and grandchildren now.
But during the 60s, my father was a real activist working in a North Korean Association in Japan and he sent his sons, that is, my brothers, to North Korea, what I would say, a big mistake but at that time, more than 90, 000 Koreans living in Japan moved to NK, with big hope and dreams. It was a very political co-project by North Korea, the Jpanese Red Cross and both governments. North Korea really wanted not only people, but also money and connections; Japan wanted to kick out Korean people, for any reasons, as much as they could.
Was it difficult for you as a child?
Well, at the time when my brothers were sent North, I was only six years old; I knew nothing about it. I was just sad as I heard that my brothers would be gone and I really hated it. That’s it. Afterwards, I started to do research so now I can tell you.
But they sent those many people, they totally ignored them, my brother’s case was a much better case than other people as my father was really devoted his life to the association. Theere were so many tragedies.
So your brothers were willing to move North; they were not forced?
It was very complicated. Willing at the beginning, and then they began to swing, but it was too late. It happeded for my two brothers, but for my eldest brother, he really didn’t want to go: he was chosen by the association, as a birthday gift to Kim Il-sung for his sixtieth birthday. Can you believe it? One hundred Korean students were chosen. After my eldest brother went to North Korea, he got really sick mentally, he really survived serious depression and then he died three years ago. My eldest brother’s story is much much worse than this one… Anyway, anyway.
Since age six, I suddenly became the only child, and I have always missed my brothers. My interest was not in North Korea, but what kind of country, or what kind of place my brothers have been living in, what kind of food my brothers have eaten, what kind of friends. I just wanted to know my brothers’ life. The first time I went to North Korea, I was seventeen years old. Since then, I went then more than ten times. Since we have family members there, the special tour for family members are totally different than that for tourists: we can stay in an apartment, my brother’s apartment and we could see more details, you know, people’s daily lives; not the parade, the official image of North Koreans but the personal, private voices and also many many tiny stories I could see. That really helps me to get to know what’s going on in that country, totally different from the official images. Of course, you know people’s lives.
Since 1995, I was thirty years old or something. I started to go to North Korea with my video camera. At the time I was interested in documentary and I was really impressed by many documentaries related to family stories. I went to Yamagata International Film Festival many times. I realized that my family story could be a very good subject matter and the fact that nobody had really made a private movie image about North Korea. Many visitors and family members of that special tour went North with video cameras so it was OK, and I pretended that I was just a visitor to see my family but I really wanted to make a documentary someday. I spent ten years on my first documenary and some more five years to make my second.
During the filming of my family members, my brother came to Japan so it happened at the same time, but I gave up filming his stay in Japan because I didn’t want to destroy his stay. I really wanted him to be relaxed, without a camera but I was always with him so I watched his reunion with his old friend, his dating with his first love and he really wanted me to be with him, always. And at the moment, I was like, wow, this is just like a movie. So simultaneously, I was thinking, OK, the footage I am now filming with my small video camera would be a documentary film someday and the memory I can not take with video camera so my eyes are like a video camera and memory would be a fiction film someday.
I’ve never thought this kind of chance could come, and I am really happy to get great great actors with this small budget. It is a real dream casting for such a small budget. They just loved the script. Arata is very well-known for his art films but not that a big name, not so popular. Honestly, he couldn’t get a lot of audience before this film. And I am a fan of him. Also Ando Sakura, I’m a big fan of her. Yea (laugh) not so many Japanese young actors can act so I really needed to get good actors. I know this must be very difficult for Japanese young actors who have never lived that kind of life, you know, being minority, and also, family separation. But I really concentrate on not to explain the broader information, they shouldn’t be like big-head persons. They don’t need to study Korean history, or Korean minority; they just need to concentrate on what kind of life Sungho has lived and what kind of emotion that Rei has. And I really tried to explain the emotional movement so I never ordered or asked how to move or what kind of face expressions I wanted to have. They are already good actors so I just wanted to present their emotions and they really did a great job.
I really liked your controlled way of story-telling: lots of understatement, like the unspoken affection and sorrow, and that Sungho barely touches his chopsticks in the welcome-back family banquet.
Right. Right. I really tried not to explain the historical background in the film. Of course there are many great films we can learn, but film is something for people to feel. It’s not a class that people should understand perfectly. Without narration, people can still laugh or what else, cry. It’s a great thing to watch films. So after watching my film, if people go to google the history, that’ll be great. Forget about strong words or strong scenes, I just want to present with fewer and fewer words, and facial expressions. Also, Yang Ik-Joon, who played the North Korean watcher: he is a great great actor (-From South Korea. -Right.) and other actors were really excited to work with him.
You mentioned you spent six month preparing and finished shooting the film within only two weeks. That’s amazing.
Yeah (laugh). I don’t know how we did it in two weeks but it was really a nightmare. Too hot, in Tokyo. And also, we really had no time. So there were moments that I really wanted to take one more, and I really had to give up so many things. The monitor was this kind of small monitor (hand sign: no big than an average adult’s palm) and I really couldn’t see (clearly). I hope I could have a better budget, and some more time. But when I was much younger than now, at my twenties and early thirties, I was either a poor theatre play company member, or poor video journalist or something and then I became a documentary film-maker.
(But you made for New School, in New York!) Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was a bartender. I worked as a bartender, and also I had many many part-time jobs. When I was in Japan, it was a hard time even to get a job as a waitress with my identity or with my Korean name especially. But now I became Japanese representative for Oscar, my mom is so happy! It is really a miracle. My friends are happy with that, too. It’s interesting. When my brothers were in Japan, it was really the worst time for Korean people living in Japan but now many things have changed.
Also during the film-making, maybe you and your father reconciled with each other?
Yeah. During the documentary making, I think, without a video camera, I couldn’t rebuild the relationship between my father and I. When he passed away three years ago, he was really happy to hear that my documentaries started to go to many film festivals. With documentaries , too, I went to many film festivals. He really wanted me to have South Korean passport. He said that in the documentary and that’s why the association didn’t like it. (Laugh) He was really honest, more mentally honest in my documentary and that was thankful. My mom said being honest was his last gift for me, for my film-making.