Many Japanese directors make family dramas — it’s the default setting for serious filmmakers here — but they are usually not telling their own family stories, however fictionalized.
One who does is Yang Yong Hi. Born and raised in Osaka’s zainichi (ethnic Korean) community, she debuted as a director with “Dear Pyongyang,” a 2005 documentary that told the story of her father, who emigrated to Japan from the southern Korean island of Cheju but after the partitioning of the country in 1945 became a fervent supporter of North Korea. When she was 6 her three teenage brothers were sent by her father to live in North Korea as part of a “repatriation” wave of zainichi who dreamed of a socialist paradise.
The enormity of that error and its lifelong consequences are the themes of Yang’s first fiction feature, “Kazoku no Kuni (Our Homeland),” which also draws on her family history and was screened in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, winning the CICAE Prize.
The West tends to regard North Korea as either a shadowy hell of extreme poverty and conformity or a bizarre Ruritania run by pudgy dictators with eccentric hairstyles. Yang, by contrast, dramatizes the human cost the North’s system inflicts, without filters and with an abundance of hard-won knowledge.
Her style is TV-drama direct, with every actor in the main cast getting at least one big emotional scene, but also unsentimental and uncompromising. How Yang, so new to directing actors, was able to extract such intensity and honesty I don’t know, though the raw-seeming, superbly crafted evidence is on the screen.
The story begins with the return of Sung Ho (Arata Iura) to his family in Tokyo after 25 years in North Korea. He is suffering from a brain tumor whose treatment is beyond the abilities of North Korean doctors and has been given three months to find a cure in Japan.
He is welcomed by his anxious, long-suffering mother (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who has prepared the food he loved as a boy; his nervous, defensive father (Masane Tsukayama), who was responsible for sending him away at age 16; and his younger sister Rie (Sakura Ando), a teacher of Japanese who has come to hate her father’s “patriotic” ideology and all it has wrought.
Sung Ho is more of an enigma, gazing on the capitalist wonders of his birthplace with shy curiosity, but unwilling — or rather, unable — to open up about his life, feelings and intentions. One reason is the presence of a sullen North Korean handler (Yang Ik June) who watches Sung Ho’s every move, but he is also living behind prison bars in his head, resigned to doing his warders’ bidding.
Far from being a brainwashed robot, however, Sung Ho knows exactly what he has lost and fiercely resents it. Attempts by well-meaning friends and family members to reconnect him to his past only stir up thoughts and emotions he has long kept suppressed.
Complications arise that hint of melodrama, medical and political, but the film stays true to the realities of its characters and their situations to the inevitable end. It shades gray what a more commercial film might have painted black and white, if with no diminishment of power.
As Sung Ho, Iura initially seems a weak, if sensitive, reed, bending to stronger wills around him. But he also suggests deeper, murkier currents that make Sung Ho hard to read — or to fool. After decades of living with lies, he has little patience with empty assurances and half-truths. They irritate and enrage him.
But Miyazaki, a former pinup idol who has become the industry’s go-to good-hearted mom, gives the film’s strongest performance as Sung Ho’s mother. The goodness is still there, since the character is self-sacrificing to a fault, but also starkly apparent is her pain, which is visible like an exposed nerve in every look and gesture.
Yet hope can be seen in her big, startled eyes, even after the worst of shocks. And love too, of course, though to Pyongyang none of it matters. The homeland of this family is finally neither in the North nor the South, but in a past that can never return, in a future that promises more of the same.
But promises, even ones by the Dear Leader, are made to be broken.