Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 87, No 4

MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN WAR. A film by Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsay Liem; directed and produced by Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsay Liem; edited by Deann Borshay Liem, Corey Ohama; original music by JJ & Chris; consulting editor, Vivien Hillgrove. Berkeley, CA: Mu Films; Channing & Popai Liem Education Foundation, 2013. 1 DVD (37 min.) Universities and Colleges, US$195.00; Nonprofit Community Groups/High Schools, US$95.00. In English and Korean with English and Korean subtitles.

The film Memory of Forgotten War is a passionate reminder of the need to illuminate the most important, and yet not well understood, event in the post-Liberation Korean Peninsula: the Korean War. The innovative choice of mixed genre provides persuasive human dimension to the drama of divided Korea through the prism of the narrative of divided families. Min Yong Lee, one of the interviewed witnesses in the film, explains the polarization among the Koreans (to close oneself off, as he put it) by the “black-and-white” culture. This either/or attitude of extremes has also marked the perceptions about the fratricidal conflict on the peninsula. The film tells the stories of the division and the war from the perspective of Koreans who found themselves in the southern half of the peninsula, separated from relatives in the north and finding it difficult to adapt to life, which eventually forced them to immigrate to the United States. The personal narrative is astutely intertwined with documentary materials (video, photos and maps) and scholarly commentary by Bruce Cumings and Ji-Yeon Yuh, thus providing a diverse and powerful depiction of the origins of the Korean War, its course and implications.

The film portrays the paths of divided families in a ruined country, starting from the first days after the liberation, the occupation of the two halves of the peninsula, and the drifting of the two sides toward a war. Cumings articulates his widely accepted argument of the origins of the war, tracing the divisions in Korean society back decades into colonialism. The historian particularly signals out the wartime mobilization of Koreans to work, serve in the army and as “comfort women” as one of the most destructive legacies of the Japanese rule. The northern part helped by the Soviets quickly launched a social revolution, including land reform. One of the interviewees, introduced as Mrs. Park, describes how her landlord’s family was dispossessed from their estate by the authorities and consequently moved to the south. The American occupying forces in the south formed a military government, propping up the Right and recruiting former colonial policemen and bureaucrats back into the administration, causing uproar among the population and continuous civil strife. According to recent conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Korea, at least one hundred thousand Koreans (communists and their sympathizers or those opposed to Syngman Rhee government) were killed by the Southern regime in the summer of 1950, when the war broke out.

The North and the South were bent on unifying the country by force. One of the witnesses from Kasesong (part of the South before the Armistice Agreement) describes the numerous border clashes before the all-out conflict as “small wars” in which many of his classmates were killed. No doubt, the simmering civil conflict along class lines in postcolonial society and belligerent governments in Pyongyang and Seoul were responsible for the outbreak of the Korean War. We have to add the victory of Chinese communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the backing of the DPRK’s key communist allies for launching a unification war against the South, and the more disciplined and the better equipped Korean People’s Army (by June 1950) as significant factors contributing to the war.

The narrative pays attention to the devastating effects of the American air raids on cities and villages across Korea. Four million people were killed during the war, 70 percent of whom were civilians, according to an estimate cited in the film. Perhaps we will never know the exact number of lost people. There was a place for contrasting memories, explains another narrator: for example, Korean children being charmed by the GIs who were giving candy bars and other presents to them. The narrative covers the suffering of the people, the ordeal of the refugees, the daily struggle for food and a roof; cardboard houses were the cheapest ones, explains one witness, a fact of life at that time. The film describes the events leading to the signing of the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, and the onerous healing process after the war. Having relatives in the North was stigmatized in the South, even leading to labeling as a “criminal family.” Not surprisingly, most of those who had relatives in the North were discriminated against and tried to rebuild their lives by emigrating from South Korea. While this is an important and usually ignored aspect of the war legacies, the film does not address the other side of the equation: the hostility and repressions against Koreans in the North who had relatives in the South. Many of those separated family members in North Korea were not only discriminated against through ascribing social status, but were also accused of being “traitors” (for having relatives who moved south) and held in labour camps, which emerged as early as the second half of 1950s.

Separated families is one of the most lasting legacies of the Korean War and the narrators share the belief that reaching out to relatives in the North is the way for reconciliation between the two Koreas. Most of the interviewed Korean Americans visited North Korea in recent decades in an attempt to find their beloved relatives. One of them, Mr. Chun, even organized a number of group visits by fellow Korean Americans to the DPRK to meet relatives. Heartbreaking memories of family reunions and already lost ones during the time after the war enhance the main message: “dialogue, interact, learn,” as the interviewee Heebok Kim sums it up in the film. The participants in the film see the extension of the bridge to the North through family connections as their mission. It looks like a thin thread stretching over the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two Koreas. States can break walls and contribute to reconciliation through policies, but unification starts from the hearts of people. The memories of the heart are the best hope for the unification of Korea. The film helps keep these memories alive and overcome the tendency to view the history of division in black and white terms. The authors deserve our utmost admiration for putting together this complex and moving mosaic of the divided Korean soul.

Avram Agov, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada                   


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RIVER CHANGES COURSE. A film by Kalyanee Mam; Migrant Films, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation presents; director, Kalyanee Mam. [Chicago, IL]: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Paris: CAT&
Docs [Distributor], 2013.
1 DVD (84 min.) US$300.00, Colleges and Universities; US150.00, K-12/Public Libraries; US$20.00, Home Use. In Khmu with subtitles in English and Khmu. 

In A River Changes Course, filmmaker Kalyanee Mam follows the lives of three families in rural Cambodia and documents their transformation due to recent development in the country. In a remote jungle in northern Cambodia, a young mother Sav Samoun lives a traditional and simple life on the mountains, where her children can easily dig up potatoes for food. She laments the changes that are taking place around her home as a result of the encroachment of development and deforestation. Like her neighbours, she must also sell her land to logging companies. In a fishing hamlet on the Tonle Sap River of central Cambodia, a teenage boy Sari Math lives an idyllic life of fishing and devotion to Islamic tradition and secular study. As the fish catch dwindles, his father sends Sari to work at a Chinese-run cassava plantation in order to earn extra income for the family. From a village outside of Phnom Penh, a young woman Khieu Mok leaves home and seeks work in a city’s garment factory in order to help her family pay off debt. She quickly discovers that city life is not easy and innocently wishes that the factory moved to her village.

In addition to intimately documenting the changes that occurred in these three lives and their environment, Mam masterfully shows the cultural transformation that accompanied them. In the forest of northern Cambodia, for example, villagers no longer are afraid of wild animals and ghosts; instead, they now fear the people who are coming to their mountains and destroying their forests. Similarly, Sari has dreamt of being a fisherman for the rest of his life. Recent dam constructions on the upstream Mekong River, which disrupts the traditional water flow in and out of the Tonle Sap, are shattering that dream as he must leave his beloved fishing hamlet and become a migrant worker. Khieu, too, struggles to balance her filial duty to her family: being apart from her family and working in the factory versus looking after her aging parents at home and helping them with the harvest.

Mam carefully and successfully connects her audience with these three Cambodian families without preaching to the audience (or to her subjects) about the consequence of Cambodia’s recent development and cultural shift. This is best depicted in a scene of a pre-puberty country bumpkin in the fishing hamlet who sings: “If you marry a city man, you will be short of money. But if you choose me, you will have dollars to spend. Darling, you will have a Lexus and a villa. Wherever you go, you will be modern and stylish.” The audience can understand/lament the demands of money-culture in the city and can appreciate the innocence and the naiveté of the young boy because we can anticipate what will happen to him and his dream. This intimate connection with the audience is helped by the camera angle: often top-down when filming two young siblings at play on the mountain and bottom-up when filming Sari on the boat in the Tonle Sap.

Mam’s ability to tell such stories from an insider’s intimate perspective with an outsider’s neutral objectivity reflects her own personal and educational background and filmography. Mam was born in Battambang of western Cambodia. In 1979, she escaped from Cambodia to the United States through a refugee camp in Thailand. After graduating from Yale and earning a law degree from UCLA, she turned to filmmaking. She is a cinematographer for the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job.A River Changes Course is her directorial debut and has won numerous prestigious awards, including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. She has also won the 2013 Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, which honours a documentary artist whose work serves as a catalyst for education and change.

In my opinion, this documentary film should be used in all college classrooms that discuss Southeast Asia and/or internal migrant workers. Mam is planning to make a sequel of this documentary, as Sari has now become a transnational migrant worker in South Korea. It is rare that a filmmaker/scholar can follow the life of an individual from his early school years to the time he becomes a migrant worker and eventually a transnational migrant. Kalyanee Mam has something special with Sari and many who have seen this film will want to know what has become of him in Seoul.

Apichai W. Shipper, Georgetown University, Arlington, USA    


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