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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Shadow Flower"

2020/10/16

After a number of awards and an Oscar nomination for "In the Absence", Yi Seung-Jun returns with a new, documentary feature this time, which focuses on the true odyssey of a woman who wants to return to her home and family.

Mostly for medical reasons, North Korean Kim Ryun-hee ended up in S. Korea in 2011, after a brief stop in China. Since then, she has been trying to leave the country, but a court decision actually forbids her from doing so, while it also demands she frequently meet a probation officer. Yi records her life since 2015, and her futile efforts to return to her family, which includes a husband, her daughter and her ailing parents.

Her herculean struggle and the strategies she comes up to return are actually fit for a thriller movie. First, she goes to the Vietnamese Embassy to apply for political asylum, then, during the 2017 Ice Hockey World Cup, she runs up to the bus waiting for the North Korean team, with the police and security detail doing their best to prevent her from doing so without using any kind of violence, as Yi's camera was recording, in a scene that would be truly surreal if it wasn't so dramatic. Then she starts trying to convince the government that she is spy, without realizing that if she is accused of such, they will never let her leave. When the tensions between the two countries start to relax, and particularly after the protests that brought President Park down, her hopes rise again, and she even manages to get a South Korean passport. Alas, even that does not work.

In her efforts, she is met with both support from friends and various organizations, but also with anger and contempt, both from "everyday" people who think North Korea is the enemy and she a spy, and others in her exact situation who think her aggression will bring them trouble.

Through all this footage, and a narration that highlights the laws concerning North Korean defectors, Yi sheds a rather thorough light on a concept that shows how a whole country can become a prison. Furthermore, his approach, and particularly the dialogues between the protagonist and other North Koreans in the South, shows the difference of opinions since some of them long to return and others are keen on staying.

The thoroughness of his research also extends to the North, where he follows her husband, a doctor in a local hospital, while a number of rather dramatic scenes of her online or via phone communications with her family induce the documentary with an even more intense humanistic aspect.

Apart from this, however, Yi's view of his "subject" is quite objective, while his, Mika Mattila, Park Hyuck-ji and Jang Hyo-bong's cameras record closely, but without imposing at any time, also capturing the moments of happiness Kim experiences. Yi and Lee Hak-min's editing induces the movie with a relatively fast pace while keeping it stripped of scenes that would only aim at beautification. This approach actually makes the documentary feel shorter than the 109 minutes of its duration, which, in any other case, would deem it difficult to watch.

"Shadow Flower" is an excellent documentary that sheds light on a dramatic but also quite interesting case, while raising a number of questions regarding the "who is the villain" in the decades-long feud between the two Koreas.

Review by Panos Kotzathanasis

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"Shadow Flower" is directed by Yi Seung-Jun . No release date in Korea yet.

 

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