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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Where is your hometown?"

2017/12/09 | Permalink

After the Japanese Occupation ended normal Koreans in difficult economic circumstances struggled to find work. With the collapse of the Japanese Empire the only stable country that was a viable location for economic migration was the Soviet Union. Then the Korean War happened, and all of a sudden, all the Koreans who had taken on temporary positions on the Kamchatka Peninsula were unable to return home. "Where is your hometown" is a documentarian explanation of their story.

The emphasis here is on the personal level. The earliest footage we see is from the mid-nineties, when changing political realities first made these reunifications possible. The production did not have a surfeit of resources. The interviews take place at whatever random place director Jung Soo-woong can get people to talk to him about Korean ancestry, or even just their daily lives. The immediate sad observation is that many people who obviously look Korean clearly identify as Russian, as this is the life they've always known.

But the metaphoric sadness of such scenes cannot compare with the heartbreaking quality of the real-life reunifications that unfold right in front of the camera. We see elderly people, husbands, wives and their now elderly children, whose only wish before dying was to see their first family again. They are relieved yet overwhelmed with emotion at having this wish finally come true. There is sheer emotional power on film there which truly gets across the tragedy of even the happy endings in war.

Consider how once it became clear that they were not going to see their Korean families again, the temporary Korean laborers ended up marrying Russian women and having Russian families, who can't fully relate to the story. The Korean men who are now the patriarchs of these families cannot realistically speaking just get up and leave. Even if they were originally from Korea, their identities are now so wrapped up in Russian culture they can't actually relate to what we would currently call the shared Korean cultural experience.

Even that expression is misleading, since what we understand as the shared Korean cultural experience is actually the shared South Korean experience. A brief zoom in on a Kim Il-sung flagpin is a stark reminder that even now politics has erected a permanent barrier between these Kamchatka Koreans and Koreans anywhere else. Their memory of Korea is a distant nationalist one, but even that has hardly been accurately preserved over the last several decades. The Russian influences on the thought process of the Kamchatka Koreans is subtle, yet unmistakable.

Most of "Where is your hometown" is just a reconciliation of all these conflicting identities, as the title itself implies. Can a place really be your hometown, if you haven't been there for most of your lifetime and the place would come off as completely alien to your children, or your children's children, or your children's children's children? Such philosophical questions are so difficult to contemplate, it's little surprise that "Where is your hometown" deals as much in daily modern Kamchatka life as it does these tough historical questions.

Review by William Schwartz

"Where is your hometown" is directed by Jung Soo-woong.

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