Kim Yong Soo used to be a national soccer team player, representing his country The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the 1998 Olympics. Now he works as a coalminer, bringing just enough money to get modest meals for his family—his son and his pregnant wife. The little family lives quietly and quite happily, finding simple joys in rain and playing with a worn-out soccer ball. Sometimes Yong Soo and his son Joon visit their neighbor, a man who does trading for the Party and smuggles some stuff from China for his own benefit. The man will serve Yong Soo whisky and canned food—a luxury. They will shut the curtains tight and play a soccer match of the South Korean team on TV, with no sound, in case anyone can overhear. “They must eat healthy to run like that,” Yong Soo says, his eyes glued to the TV screen.
Yong Soo’s wife hasn’t been feeling well for quite some time. Insisting that it’s only a harmless flu, she refuses to get checked up, until eventually she passes out. Apparently, she’s suffering from Tuberculosis, due to malnutrition. The doctor prescribes a medicine, but nobody actually sells it. Yong Soo asks the help of his neighbor to look for the medicine in China, but one night some officials raid his house. Caught having so many illegal possessions, he is then sent to a prison camp, along with his wife and daughter. Having nobody else to turn to, Yong Soo now has to cross the border himself.
A while ago when reviewing JSA I talked about how North Koreans are always portrayed as spies in South Korean films, and Crossing is such a welcome exception. But the thing is, South Koreans don’t want to see a film like this. They don’t want to see how their distant relatives are dying from hunger, how they are scraping corn from cow dung to survive. Probably because it’s too depressing, or probably because they just don’t want to know. And it’s understandable considering how much money the South has spent on the problem. There have been about 24,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War. When refugees arrive in the South, they are interrogated by intelligence officers to make sure that they are not spies, and then they are given 20 million won to resettle and a 320,000 won living stipend each month for five years. They are given a crash course on life—how to use an ATM, how to pay electronic bills, how to drive a car, how to speak like a South Korean. But despite all the efforts, most of these people have a hard time functioning as a part of the South Korean society properly. The government gives them free university tuition yet they cannot keep up with the courses, having studied more about their Great Leader and Dear Leader than mathematics back in the North. With the insane competition in the South Korean society (like we can see in Pluto), how in the world can these people keep up? Moreover, most of these defectors also have psychological problems—depression, post-traumatic stress.
Keeping all that in mind, it’s easy to see why South Koreans are reluctant to open themselves to their Northern counterparts. But we forget that aside from all that baggage, the hundreds of thousands of people that escape North Korea are just trying to live. Most don’t dream about freedom of speech or becoming the next president, they probably just want to have a full meal. Some probably watch South Korean TV shows smuggled by their relatives from China and the images they see leave them awestruck. Others probably have experienced the labor camps and cannot take being treated so inhumanely anymore. Whatever the motivations are, these people risk their lives walking and running for days, fighting the cold or hunger, to get across the border. The luckier ones, whose escapes are paid by their relatives who already defected at a high price, might get the ‘VIP’ treatment, having fake IDs made for them, arriving in South Korea by plane, not having to walk or pretend to be asleep in trains, avoiding background checks by Chinese officials who will repatriate them back to North Korea if they are caught. If they do get repatriated, they’ll get sent to labor camps and let’s just say that death seems like the more favorable option.
Crossing tells a plausible story about a plausible character. It doesn’t show a North Korean spy heartlessly killing South Korean agents, or a North Korean secret agent in the South calling his wife in the North on the phone—in reality no mobile phones can dial into or out of North Korea. This is a story about an ordinary North Korean trying to save his family and unexpectedly gets his plan derailed. It is a melodrama, but one that doesn’t go too far and thus, works. It touches the theme of religion and handles it just right, not dwelling too far into it, not allowing it to overpower the main issue. Cha In Pyo as the lead makes us believe his every smile, his every desperation. Twelve year-old Joo Da Yeong steals scenes as the daughter of Yong Soo’s neighbor. Her smile brightens up the screen and its disappearance breaks your heart.
Crossing premiered in June 2008 and only managed to garner 891,792 viewers in South Korea. It seems like making films depicting the stories of North Korean defectors is not a good business decision, so we are probably not getting more films like this, and what a shame that is. Crossing might not be perfect but it sure is one of the most important South Korean films, and unfortunately it has been completely disregarded by most people.
On a side note, I encourage you to read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, stories of six ordinary North Korean defectors. I cannot recommend this book enough.