[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Cross of North Gando"

Though the province of Gando in the Yanbian province of China has an ethnic Korean makeup, it is not generally thought of as Korean. Nearly everyone who grew up in a time when the area would have been considered Korean is dead now. So it is that as one distinguished elderly pastor from North Gando comes to the end of his life, a historian goes out to research that man's home, its history, and how that related to the idea of Korea as a national identity.

"The Cross of North Gando" is by its nature very bittersweet. Long before we get to the end of the documentary, where the pastor predictably explains how post-war conflict drove him far south, we can tell that his efforts for the sake of Korean nationalism, while noble, ultimately failed. A few moments of inspiring courage, most notably one explaining the backdrop of the Battle of Fengwudong, can't detract from this.

If that name sounds familiar it's probably because this was the same battle dramatized in the recent blockbuster "The Battle: Roar to Victory". Director Ban Tae-kyung gets into the smaller details that the war movie couldn't- like how the communities were organized, or how they resisted domination via more passive means than literally taking up arms against the Japanese. There are a lot of neat details in here about how Korean nationalists operated in Western institutions as safehouses, which the Japanese could not invade at will.

The main limitation "The Cross of North Gando" has as a historical document is that the movie inevitably skews to the perspective of Christian communities. These were not necessarily representative of the Gando region as a whole. And of course, there's also the small matter of Korea at large never really caring that much about Gando, especially once the Japanese Occupation of Korea got started.

Via the fragmented moments of the narrative, we see how the pastor on his deathbed was ineffectively trying to navigate an unavoidably bad political situation where communication with other independence minded groups was scattershot at best. In this way "The Cross of North Gando" is an effective look at how one single faction of the very fragmented Korean independence fighters was organized. We can see how mere determination alone was never enough to swing the battle as far as necessary, which is why the documentary's travelogue portions in Gando have such an otherworldly quality. It's a kind of Korea that doesn't really resemble the North or the South.

Director Bae Tae-kyung has delivered a surprisingly fundamentally Christian interpretation of the Korean independence movement here without devolving into fundamentalism. The historical journey taken through the pastor's life mirrors that of a traditional martyr story. Sure, the man lost everything, and never even got to see his home again- but that was God's plan, against which he had no will to argue. All we can really do is honor his memory, and appreciate the subtle nuances of what life was like when people from Gando still considered themselves nationalist Koreans.

Review by William Schwartz


"The Cross of North Gando" is directed by Ban Tae-kyung, and narrated by Moon Sung-geun. Release date in Korea: 2019/10/17.