I suppose director Daniel Gordon’s Crossing the Line would have been a hot ticket at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival (October 12-20) even if North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) hadn’t decided to assert itself as a nuclear power a mere 72 hours before the festival’s opening night. But with the ground still reverberating from Kim Jong Il’s impromptu show of force, interest in Gordon’s feature-length look at life north of the 38th parallel reached a fever pitch, with tickets selling out minutes after they went on sale. Crossing the Line isn’t the first time that Gordon, a British national, has turned his documentary camera on the DPRK: His 2002 debut feature, The Game of Their Lives, told the story of the 1966 North Korean World Cup soccer team, while his subsequent A State of Mind observed the buildup to the annual, Kim Jong Il–exalting Mass Games. What sets Gordon’s new film apart, however, is its subject — a certain Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok, who, along with three other U.S. soldiers, walked across a heavily mined section of the DMZ and defected to North Korea in the early 1960s.
Today, Comrade Joe has lived twice as long in Pyongyang as he did in America, is married with children (who speak Korean as their first language) and claims, as he smiles into Gordon’s lens with a mouth full of gold-capped teeth, to have no regrets about his fateful decision of 40-odd years ago. Featuring equally remarkable interviews with some of the Korean People’s Army vets who arrested Dresnok upon his arrival in the DPRK, and those who knew Joe before he went AWOL, Gordon’s film reconstructs the story of how a small-town Virginia youth, abandoned by his parents and bounced between abusive foster homes, went looking for a father figure and found one — first in the U.S. military and then in the Honorable Leader Kim Il Sung.
While it neither endorses nor condemns Dresnok’s decision, Crossing the Line is surprisingly candid about the fact that a man of Dresnok’s limited means may in fact have enjoyed a better life under communism than he would have in the land of the capitalist dream/nightmare. Yet for all of Gordon’s intimate access, there exist many things Dresnok is unwilling or unable to discuss, including his first North Korean marriage (to a European woman believed to have been kidnapped against her will). So Crossing the Line, like its subject, remains a fascinating and frustrating enigma — a declassified government report still marred by blacked-out passages.
One of the more offbeat details about Dresnok’s life is the fact that he enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity playing the de rigueur ugly American in a string of North Korean propaganda movies. No doubt, some of them passed through the hands of Han Yong-Sil, the DPRK’s only female film projectionist, whose life in the rural farm town of Chongsan-ri is documented in German director Uli Gaulke’s effervescent Comrades in Dreams. Han is actually one of four projectionists profiled by Gaulke, all of them working in unlikely movie houses in some of the world’s most remote corners, from a traveling tent cinema in the shantytowns of India to a single-screen, barn-shaped theater called the Flick in Big Piney, Wyoming.
What connects the stories is the universal language of cinema and a sense that there are places, in our DVD-happy times, where the local movie theater is still an important community hub. But Gaulke is just as eager to show us intimate details of how everyday life is lived in these faraway places, and in a few delicate domestic scenes of Han bravely pining for her absent husband (who has been sent away on government-ordered business), Comrades in Dreams gets closer even than Crossing the Line to humanizing the people of a nation shrouded in so much rumor and innuendo.
Unlike most of our local film festivals, Pusan balances its roster of new films with an extensive retrospective program — and even there, one couldn’t escape the shadow of North Korea, thanks to a revival screening of the late director (and Los Angeles resident) Shin Sang-Ok’s 1962 film The Arch of Chastity. One of the most celebrated Korean directors of the 1950s and ’60s, Shin is today remembered as much for his actual films as for the notorious 1978 episode in which he and his estranged wife, the actress Choi Eun-Hee, were purportedly abducted by North Korean agents and eventually forced to make government-sponsored films under the supervision of the movie-mad Kim Jong Il. That’s a good story, but it risks overshadowing the fact that Shin’s movies more than stand on their own.
Feared lost until a surviving print was recently found in a Taiwanese film archive, The Arch of Chastity stars Choi as a widow whose effort to preserve her chaste virtue is complicated when she develops passionate feelings for an itinerant farmhand. If the dramatic blueprint is something of a perennial in Asian culture — Shin himself filmed a virtually identical tale, My Mother and Her Guest, just the year before — the execution is anything but, with its boldly expressive wide-screen visuals and its violent collision of traditional values and modernity. The restoration of the film represents one small but significant step in the rediscovery of Shin’s career, which consists of close to 100 films, only a fraction of which have been seen by even the most well-versed Asian-cinema experts. As with last year’s Pusan retrospective of Shin’s contemporary Lee Man-Hee, that’s one more compelling reminder that, even in this age of heroic film-preservation efforts and the rapid expansion of the DVD library, there remain major films and filmmakers absent from the canon.
In its 11th year, Pusan is something like a Cinderella who went to the ball and never turned back into a chambermaid. In an astonishingly short time by film-festival standards (consider that Cannes will turn 60 in May, while Sundance celebrated its 20th anniversary this year), it has established itself as the most important film event in all of Asia, drawing the leading international sales agents, distributors and festival programmers to its thriving market and to the festival proper. A virtual tent city of beachside bungalows and an open-air screening venue now line the Haeundae Beach shoreline. Hotel vacancies are scarce. And there is no indication that the festival organizers are about to rest on their laurels: In 2006 — the same year that Korean movies again dominated the domestic box office despite the continued efforts of the MPAA to repeal the quotas presently regulating the influx of American movies — Pusan (in collaboration with the Korean Film Commission) launched a Sundance-like development lab for new film projects and, shortly after the close of the festival, unveiled plans to organize a screening series of festival highlights in Los Angeles in early 2007. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even winged to Seoul for the announcement. That’s good news for local moviegoers, who, left to rely on the programming choices of our various festivals and specialty screening venues, reliably miss out on any number of the most interesting new Asian films every year. And it’s one more welcome sign of life from a national film industry that continues to thrive, despite the best efforts of Hollywood to colonize it into obscurity.