BUSAN, South Korea — Korean-Japanese filmmaker Yang Yonghi says she leaned on her own personal history and similar stories from her pro-North Korean community in Japan for her latest movie, the feature film "Our Homeland," which made its South Korean debut Saturday at the Busan International Film Festival.
"Our Homeland" tells the story of Sung Ho, a Japanese-born Korean who was among the estimated 90,000 people sent by their families to North Korea during a wave of repatriations from the late 1950s to the 1970s. He returns to Tokyo after 25 years away for a brief reunion with the rest of the family still living in Japan and medical treatment for his brain tumor.
The movie, which premiered at the Berlin film festival, was selected as Japan's Academy Awards entry this year for best foreign-language film – a notable accomplishment for an ethnic Korean director from Japan, a country long accused of treating its ethnic Korean residents like second-class citizens.
"Our Homeland" is among three films screening in Busan with connections to North Korea. Feature film "Comrade Kim Goes Flying" is a joint North Korean-European production about a coal miner with aspirations to become a trapeze artist, and "Choongshim, Soso" is a short South Korean-made film about a North Korean defector hiding in China.
Yang belongs to the ethnic Korean "zainichi" minority in Japan, many of them descendants of Koreans brought there during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea. The community is divided between those pledging allegiance to Pyongyang and those to Seoul; all are assigned Korean passports at birth, even if their families have lived in Japan for generations.
"Our Homeland," her first feature film, is based on her own reunion with a brother sent to North Korea at age 16 by their pro-North Korean father at a time when North Korea had a stronger economy than South Korea. Like many fathers of his generation, he believed life would be better for his son in North Korea than in Japan, where Koreans faced widespread discrimination.
Yang explored the same issue in two documentaries, "Dear Pyongyang" of 2005 and "Sona, the Other Myself" of 2009, both based on interaction with her family in North Korea.
"Our Homeland" stars Arata Iura as the brother Yun Sung Ho who returns to Japan for a three-month visit. Sakura Ando plays Yun Rie, the sister who tries to stop her brother from returning to Pyongyang.
The role of the North Korean agent assigned to trail the brother during his visit is played by South Korean actor Yang Ik-june, "Comrade Yang" who tells Rie that he and his brother have no choice but to live under orders from the government in Pyongyang "until the end of their lives."
"The story of every one of them deserves to be told," Yang said at a news conference in Busan on Saturday. "We can't turn a blind eye to their lives."
Yang, who grew up with a North Korean passport, switched allegiances in recent years and is now a South Korean citizen living in Japan.
South Korean film critic Kim Ji-seok said "Our Homeland" does a superb job of casting a light on the difficult and sometimes forgotten subject of repatriations.
The repatriation of Japan's ethnic Koreans marked a brief moment of cooperation between North Korea and Japan, providing much-needed labor for Pyongyang and easing a welfare burden for Tokyo, according to a 2009 paper by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of Japanese history at Australian National University.
But the division was tough for the families.
In "Dear Pyongyang," Yang captures her family preparing boxes of goods for the relatives in North Korea, where the economy stagnated for decades after such promising growth in the early years after being divided in 1945 into the Soviet-backed North and the capitalist South.
"The real tragedy for the people who moved to North Korea is that they weren't able to go back home after they realized the country was a far cry from a paradise," Yang said.