Tuesday, October 22, 2013

KAFFNY 2013: SEEKING HAVEN reveals an impossible escape

Seeking Haven tells of a family’s desperate pursuit of freedom against impossible odds. It first details Youngsoon Kim and her sister’s escape across international borders from North Korea into China. While Youngsoon kept on the move and achieved more lasting asylum in South Korea, her sister was returned to North Korea, a political prisoner, leaving Kim to devote most of her waking life to bringing her, as well as her father, back out from North Korea.

The documentary’s matter of fact narration and no frills production may cause one to underestimate the intensity of drama unfolding before us.  And while the placid mountainous scenery along the Chinese-North Korean border, a breathtaking and rarely viewed locale, has an air of serenity, the exasperation of  Youngsoon‘s struggle gradually sets in and takes hold.    

An overview of the escape process detailed here involves a dizzying number of border crossings and network of individuals, either working out of compassion or for personal profit, ranging from trusted allies of the North Korean military to South Korean religious leaders and government operatives.

The brief production, just under an hour in length, is a mix of compelling personal drama and an uncovering of little known facts. While it remains unclear what the exact impetus is for Youngsoon and her sister’s initial escape efforts, conditions of fear and squalor among a significant part of North Korea’s population is hinted at. Intricacies of prohibited border crossings and prison extractions are revealed, as well as the policies regarding those labeled political prisoners in North Korea.

Meanwhile, Youngsoon is a portrait of incredible dedication.  Her mind turns constantly to seeking out information on her family’s wellbeing, and then to the task of getting them across the North Korean border. Yet every move is filled with uncertainty. As she makes arrangements with individuals, known as ‘brokers,’ hired to investigate prisoners’ whereabouts and facilitate their escape, and makes occasional contact with members of her family, one wonders how reliable any of the information she obtains actually is.   

Herein lies an irony that is overwhelmingly painful. On one hand, Youngsoon is an extremely fortunate individual who has escaped persecution to start her life again. We are given glimpses of the resilient and energetic young woman as she engages various pursuits with a passion, never wasting a moment of her freedom. Yet the peaceful environment around her cannot quell the turmoil within as she struggles to help her family, always wondering what fate has befallen them and whether or not she will ever succeed in helping them escape.  

What feelings truly lie behind the smile of someone like Youngsoon, whose every day is filled with unease, is Seeking Haven’s most haunting mystery, making it as fine an example of human drama as any.

SEEKING HAVEN is being screened at the opening night of the 7th annual Korean American Film Festival of New York on October 24, 8 PM, at Village East Cinema.  Visit the KAFFNY website for details.

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