Director Fidyk, who previously had the dictatorial North Korean regime as the subject of his film in ‘The Parade’, returns to this theme for his poignant portrait of a concentration camp in North Korea that, in the film itself, takes the form adopted from a musical.
Exposing North Korea in this way is a risky undertaking – especially to North Korean refugees and their families, who will have to fear for their lives when the project becomes publicized in their native country. Not only will their own lives become less safe, possible family members who are still in North Korea run a great chance of being arrested because of the cooperation in the Yodok musical. Because that is how the regime of Kim Yong-il deals with these kinds of dissidents or “different thinkers”. If one person has done something wrong in Kim’s eyes, the whole family has to pay. And this transgression can be very harmless. For example, a woman who has fled tells that her only crime was that she was a friend of Kim Yong-il’s wife. She may have once been critical of this marriage … but there have also been cases where a newspaper bearing the image of Kim was laid on the floor. Sacrilege, of course! It is all reason enough to lock those responsible in camps that are hardly different from the Nazi work and death camps. People here are beat up, mistreated, malnourished, raped, and murdered and the chance of ever getting out of such a camp is nil.
The presence of these camps in 2008 is shocking enough, but the fact that North Korea has managed to hide this for so long, with the result that almost no one in the world knows about it, is especially disturbing. South Korea seems to be aware of these developments, but no action is being taken, most likely out of fear. For fear of actions by North Korea, perhaps, or of the problems that opening the border between North and South entails.
But the camps really are there, as evidenced by the more than vivid, explicit narrations and performances of the musical staff. Fidyk also shows some images of the outside of the camp, which is of course very risky. In any case, it is striking that the director of the film managed to find so many refugees who wanted to participate in his project. Not only are they and their families suddenly in danger again when they expose themselves in this way – for example, an ex-guard of Kim Yong-Il had to stop cooperating prematurely due to threats and the arrest of family members – but their experiences in the camp inevitably have a deep psychological effect. wounds taken care of. It must be very painful to rekindle all of this. Ultimately, however, they feel it is more important to be heard, with the hope that the situation in North Korea will improve.
The refugees therefore throw themselves passionately into this production, in which the many beatings and murders in the camp are graphically depicted. This must be stinging and very emotional for those involved but they are extremely professional and do everything they can to make it the representation of their lives. What’s remarkable is that the people are so hopeful, and not terribly bitter or vindictive either. For example, an ex-camp guard is involved in the production, who explains reasonably businesslike what the procedures were in the camp and what terrible abuses took place – partly because of his actions. He is not denounced in the group, but actually just accepted as a fellow victim. It’s almost heartwarming.
“Yodok Stories” is impressive when the musical is literally on screen and the spectator indirectly witnesses some gruesome moments in the camp, and also when the refugees talk about their own experiences outside the set. The film is almost exclusively limited to the musical and those involved themselves, which is somewhat regrettable as more reactions from abroad and South Korea could have put things in a somewhat broader perspective. However, the scenes are beautiful in which balloons with promotional material for the musical and information about South Korea are released at the border in order to eventually end up in the camp itself. That way, those people can learn the truth about the South – which is presented in North Korea as poor and underdeveloped. The short trip of a few refugees to the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom, on the border of North and South, is also impressive, and with a tension in the air that can be cut.
It is hoped that ‘Yodok Stories’ will be viewed all over the world and perhaps also in South Korea – where the Yodok music was a huge success – will cause a change, so that the camps from North Korea will disappear. duration will disappear. Then these brave at least refugees stuck their necks out for good reason.