There are clear reasons so few outsiders have made movies about North Korea. Even if a film crew could somehow get inside the country, the relentlessly paranoid government would never allow the full reality to be shown. And it would be nearly impossible to find a stand-in country in which the peculiar conditions that reign inside Asia's last Stalinist state could be reproduced.
Yet South Korean director Kim Tae Kyun has somehow managed to pull it off. His latest work, "The Crossing," is at once morally unstinting and brutally authentic. The title is a reference to the tragic fate of North Koreans driven by circumstances to leave their homeland. The story focuses on Kim Yong Su (Cha In Pyo), a North Korean coal miner and ex-soccer star who decides to dare a risky trip across the border into China in search of the medicine his wife needs to survive tuberculosis. After a series of complications, Yong Su accidentally ends up in South Korea. Once there, his only choice is to engineer the escape of the wife and young son he's left behind.
It's an unsparingly emotional tale, yet director Kim never leaves his viewers feeling manipulated. That's partly a result of his meticulous script, which was based on dozens of interviews with actual defectors. It's also due to the care with which Kim's storytelling carefully inoculates its largely South Korean audience against self-congratulation. For Yong Su, freedom in South Korea is also a torturous involuntary exile, a purgatory where he's condemned to agonize about the fate of his loved ones. Those who help the North Koreans escape do so out of a mix of motives that range from altruistic Christian zeal to the good old-fashioned love of cash. When one of his benefactors suggests that they pray together, Yong Su, anguished by uncertainty, rages in response: "Does Jesus Christ only live in South Korea?"
Cha is the centerpiece of a breathtaking cast. Known primarily as a Korean cinema heartthrob, he turns in a searing performance as the gentle Yong Su, a goodhearted man who finds himself at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Playing his wife, the Korean star Suh Yong Hwa delivers a master class in understatement. But it's the film's child actors who really steal the show. As Yong Su's 11-year-old son, Jun, Shin Myung Chul covers an emotional gamut that would sorely challenge many Hollywood A-listers. At one point he's thrust into the Darwinian world of the "flower swallows," homeless (and usually orphaned) street children who steal to survive. We watch as he morphs from a happy-go-lucky school kid to a ravaged survivor who soon finds himself killing rats in a labor camp to save his last remaining friend, Mi Sun (the equally impressive Joo Da Young).
Kim and his crew have gone to extraordinary lengths to re-create the texture of everyday life in one of the world's most inaccessible countries. Much of the movie was shot secretly on location in China and Mongolia, where the producers chose not to report their activities to the authorities, who are loath to allow anything that might offend the government in Pyongyang. For some of the scenes set in the North, the production team built replicas of North Korean villages in South Korea's remote eastern area, frequently consulting ex-Northerners in order to keep things real. Dialogue coaches relentlessly drilled the South Korean actors in the unfamiliar dialect of the Northern province where much of the action takes place.
The film's virtues go well beyond the political. Much of the world has heard that North Korea treats its people badly, but it's another matter altogether to show how it actually looks when children are beaten and starved in concentration camps. Ironically, it's probably South Koreans who need the wake-up call the most. The government in Seoul, eager to pursue good relations with Pyongyang in recent years, has often been guilty of tamping down complaints about the North's human-rights record. South Koreans on the left tend to dismiss anything uncomplimentary about the North as capitalist propaganda; other Southerners seem more concerned about the vague threat of mad-cow disease from the United States (which inspired mass demonstrations in recent weeks) than the treatment of their own compatriots on the other side of the 38th parallel. "We have ignored North Koreans too long because we didn't know what was happening in the North," says Kim. "We could hear their screams but we shut our ears." His film makes that exceedingly tough to do.