Born in 1964 in Osaka, Japan, the filmmaker Yang Yonghi comes from a Korean family supporting the communist regime in North Korea. In 1971, her father sent her three elder brothers to Pyongyang to help building up the socialist nation. They have not been allowed to leave the country ever since. As only daughter, Yang Yonghi stayed with her parents in Japan and received a North Korean education until she left for film studies in New York. After her return she made two documentaries, DEAR PYONGYANG (2005) and SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF (2009). She also wrote several books about her family history. In 2011, she realized her first fiction film OUR HOMELAND which has been selected as Japanese entry for the Academy Awards.
Yang Yonghi's films in a touching personal way describe the influence of the Korean division —a result of the Cold War— on today's individuals and their family spread all over the world.
The retrospective at Werkstattkino shows all her films in the original version with English or German subtitles. From January 12th to 15th, the director will be at the screenings in Munich for Q&A.
Fraunhoferstraße 9, 80469 Munich, Germany
Tel. +49 (0)89 / 260 72 50
Admission: 6 €
In her first feature documentary, the Japanese born ethnic Korea Yang Yonghi explores her father's fierce loyality, and her own resistance, to the North Korean cause. As a teenager, the filmmaker's father emigrated from the South Korean island Cheju to Japan. His experiences of Japanese occupation, Korea's subsequent division, and the Korean War molded him into a self-pro-claimed North Korean and supporter of Kim Il-Sung. In 1971, in the ultimate ideological sacrifice, he sent his three sons – ages 14, 16, and 18 – to Pyongyang, North Korea, forever. Thirty years later, Yang Yong-hi, his youngest child, raised with the privileges of modern Japan, lovingly probes her father about his radical choices.
Documentary, 107 min, Japan 2005, Screenplay, Director, Cinematographer: Yang Yonghi, Editor: Nakawoo Akane, Language: Japanese and Korean with English subtitles
«She films multiple trips to Pyongyang, offering unprecedented access to North Korean daily life and the painful realities of familial separation. Her playful sessions, at times antagonistic, reveal a man at once rigid in his beliefs and surprisingly accomodating to change. Unafraid to confront complexity, Yang crafts a father-daughter story of geographic and spiritual diaspora, and of political and personal devotion.»
SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF is Yang Yonghi's second cinematographic examination of her North Korean family. This time, the story concentrates on her niece Sona. The filmmaker followed her growing up on her family visits in Pyongyang. The sporadic encounters abruptly stop when Yang Yonghi is no longer allowed to enter the country.
Documentary, 82 min, Japan, Republic of Korea 2009, Screenplay, Director, Cinematographer: Yang Yonghi, Editor: Jang Jin, Language: Korean and Japanese with English subtitles
«The rare family gatherings in Pyongyang, which the film lovingly observes over more than a decade, seldom come across as light-hearted, the impending farewell hanging over every outing, over every shared meal. There's something just as forced about using Japanese yen to buy ice cream and pasta in the North Korean Intershop as there is about the hymns to the great leader, which Sona is already singing as a small child. The film tells of the longing for a true common ground, whilst being aware that it doesn't actually exist.»
In her first fiction film OUR HOMELAND, Yang Yonghi again works with elements of her own family history.The film centers on Rie (Ando Sakura), daughter from a pro-North Korean family in Japan who sent her brother Sonho (Iura Arata) to North Korea. He is seriously ill and gets the permission to come back to Japan for several months for a surgery. During his stay, the relation between brother and sister is challenged.
Drama, 100 min, Japan 2012, Screenplay and director: Yang Yonghi, Cinematography: Toda Yoshihisa, Actors: Ando Sakura, Iura Arata, Yang Ik-june, Miyazaki Yishiko, Tsukayama Masane, Language: Japanese and Korean with German subtitles
«It’s difficult to remain unaffected by the story’s emotional components. But the director doesn’t place her emphasis on melodrama, being simply interested in two people handed radically different life perspectives by the course of history. While Sonho’s path is sketched out for him, Rie recognises that a whole world of opportunities is open to her. Including the chance to rebel against her own family.»
Can you tell me about the process of making DEAR PYONGYANG?
Some filmmakers work very quickly, but I can't do that. I spent ten years to make DEAR PYONGYANG Making this film was a process of gazing at my family. I realized what a trauma it was for me to lose my brothers. I had been trying not to touch that memory too often, but when I started to talk with my father, memories came back.
Before the film, we had a very bad communication, especially with my father. But after I had decided to make this documentary, I tried to get closer to him, which he avoided in the beginning. He was really suspicious! But at the same time it made him happy. And so we started to talk.
During shooting and editing, I tried to be honest but careful at the same time. And when I started editing, my father had a stroke. His condition was fragile, and I went back and forth between the hospital in Osaka and the editing room in Tokyo. There, I saw my father singing and joking, but at the hospital … Well, he didn't die at that time, but I kept thinking I might lose him. During the eight months of editing I cried a lot and I drank a lot, too (laughing).
After DEAR PYONGYANG you were not allowed to enter North Korea anymore…
When I went to North Korea for the first time with a video camera, the check person at the seaport didn't know anything about video cameras. They thought it was a big still camera. But later they asked me why I brought so many empty video tapes with me, and I tried to explain that this was my diary. But they didn't accept that as an answer and I was always taken to an extra room. They checked all my luggage. Sometimes, the huge ferry boat with all people had to wait for me. They also checked all my footage, but at that time they didn't know that we can make documentaries in many different ways. After I releasedh DEAR PYONGYANG, they finally found out that checking video tapes doesn't mean anything. Of course, many people make documentaries with the permission of the North Korean government, but I am not interested in that.
During the last years there has been a wave of documentaries shot in North Korea by Western directors under the permission of the North Korean government. What makes your films unique is this special approach through your familye…
…and that I never tried to make a film about North Korea! I am actually not interested in North Korea or in political issues at all! I don't care about the Kim family, my documentaries are about my family. It's an interesting family with very good characters: my father, Sona, my niece… Nice and simple people, very talkative… good characters for a documentary! But, in order to talk about my family history, I have to touch North Korea and the history of Zainichi (second generation Koreans) in Japan.
Let's come to SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF. The circumstances seem very different. You had financial support from South Korea and basically a South Korean team.
Only the post production team was from South Korea. Shooting is always my private work. After DEAR PYONGYANG I was kind of broke, although I had received several great awards. I didn't want to work for TV production companies anymore, but I knew that I wanted to do another clip with Sona. Then a small production company in South Korea called and invited me to Seoul, and we started editing SONA.
One difference between DEAR PYONGYANG and SONA is that you are very often on screen and there is someone else filming you. Why did you decide to appear in the film?
Actually I didn't want to do that. The footage I used for both documentaries, DEAR PYONGYANG and SONA was shot over a long time, and my presence in the picture is very constant. Especially in the beginning, from 1995 to 1997, when I was not so sure if I was going to make a documentary, I pretended to be a visitor, not a filmmaker or journalist. The travels to North Korea are always official trips and you are surrounded by many people. So it was very difficult to move as a cameraman and sometimes I gave the camera to anyone and asked them to take pictures of us, my niece and me together. It was not like professional filmmaking, more like taking souvenir pictures.
The editor for SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF was a Korean documentary filmmaker (Jang Jin). He is a nice family man, and he couldn't stop crying: O my god, you can't see Sona anymore… He liked the pictures of Sona and me together and strongly insisted to use them, and although I hated that, I agreed in the end.
Editing SONA I felt I was ready to be more honest, or more direct than with DEAR PYONGYANG. It was hard because my mother asked me not to talk about my brother's illness, although this was important to me. Being honest needs a lot of energy.
DEAR PYONGYANG is about your father, and SONA is basically about your niece, but OUR HOMELAND is actually about you. Why did you choose the fictional form for this topic?
During the shooting, I realized that sometimes fiction can be more real than documentary. Because in a documentary, I cannot shoot certain conversations or face expressions. I had a real dream cast, especially the young actors, Ando Sakura and Iura Arata. When I watched Ando Sakura act, I realized I must have had her face expression when I said good-bye to my brother. I didn't know that before and it was an interesting experience.The shooting process opened my memory box, and I was overwhelmed. So I cried a lot, not during shooting, but afterwards, in the bathroom or at home.
One day, the actor Iura Arata came to me when I was crying. He thought I might be crying out of fear because I was a newcomer or because I was too nervous. He asked if I was OK and I said: I am totally OK, but because of you guys acting, my memories came back, and I just can't stop crying. And he said: That's OK, please cry.
What's your next project?
I am now writing my first novel. It will be finished in December. And from next year, I will be busy with shooting a documentary about my mum and also writing a new script. It's a love story between a Japanese man and a Korean women, who is a little bit complicated. Not simply Zainichi, but – you will see!
The interview was held by Susanne Mi-Son Quester on November 29th, 2016 via skype.