Monday, April 18, 2011

Review – Crossing

April 18, 2011

Crossing – South Korea, 2008

Allow me to give you a sentiment that has been said for decades – If he cared about them so much, why didn’t he bring them along? Now, you give me the context. In the 1850’s, this was said about the Chinese immigrants that came to the United States after gold was discovered in California; later, it was leveled at migrant workers – both documented and undocumented - who left their families back home to find work in other cities or even other countries. In few of these instances was the remark aimed at understanding the people it was directed at; rather, it was meant as an insult, a cruel remark meant to show the supposed difference between what people say and what they do. In Crossing, the sentiments above are hurled at a man who is both a father and a husband, whose family is poor and whose wife is both sick and pregnant. The man has a pleasant furnished apartment, his wife and son a tiny apartment without even a bed or a kitchen. So the questions could be asked: Just why did he leave them behind? A better question would be: What choice did he have?

The man described above is a North Korean named Kim Yong-soo (In-pyo Cha). Every day, Kim toils in the coal mines for meager wages, despite having been a star soccer player in the past. Throughout the film, he is recognized by both his own countrymen and those in neighboring countries. He must have been quite good. Apparently athletic ability does not guarantee a prosperous future in North Korea. On his way home from work, he passes lines of government officials that proclaim the government’s respect for them and remind residents of how valuable these workers are. There’s little to show for this respect other than their small color television, a gift from the great Kim Il-Sung - at least that’s what’s inscribed on top of the television set.

The family has a next door neighbor who with the help of an aunt in China smuggles in illegal items such as tapes of South Korean television, foreign liquor, American dollars, and a cache of pocket Bibles. His description of the Bible intrigues Kim, so he gives him one. The book comes with a warning: “Don’t tell anyone.” Later, the authorities pay Kim’s neighbors a late night visit, and just like that, all three of them disappear. All that remains is an utterly ransacked home. Only one member of the family, a young girl named Mi-seun (Da –yeong Woo), is seen again, and when she reappears, it is in a rundown part of town where some people are reduced to searching for bits of food in the dirt below them.

Tragedy strikes. Kim’s pregnant wife is diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the local doctor advises Kim to look for medicine on the black market. His efforts are unsuccessful. With his wife’s condition worsening daily, he makes the only decision available to him - he crosses the river separating North Korea and China. It is not be the only crossing that is made in the film.

There are two relationships at the heart of Crossing. The first is the one between Kim and his son, Joon (Myeong-cheol Shin). Like many children, Joon idolizes his father, and the scenes of the two of them playing soccer – sometimes with nothing more than a small rock – clearly demonstrate the extent of the connection they share. The second friendship is the one that develops between Joon and Mi-seun. The two of them are too young to fall in love, and it is more likely that what they are experiencing is the initial stage of maturity, when the opposite sex begins to be interesting for reasons that remain unknown for at least a little while longer. This stage initially causes awkwardness for Joon, yet later it allows him to form an important bond with Mi-seun. There’s a rather moving scene in which Mi-Seun sits sideways on the back of a bicycle while Joon rides her around what for the moment must seem like a beautiful, lush field. It is a glimpse into what might have been for the two of them under better conditions.

The film is directed by Tae-gyun Kim, and with this film, he displays a talent for telling a complicated story from multiple points of view. The cast is also superb. I also liked the way the film touches on religion without being an overtly religious film. Some of the characters draw strength from religion; others cannot reconcile the words they read with the reality they face. Neither perspective is portrayed as the correct one, and both perspectives make sense for the individuals experiencing them. If I have one gripe with Kim’s direction, it is his overreliance on the film’s score to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. It’s simply not necessary for such an emotionally draining film as this one.

And the film is emotionally draining. It’s one thing to read in the newspaper about people being sent to rehabilitation camps. It’s quite another to see the decrepit conditions of the camp and the daily abuse that the prisoners face. The film confronts viewers with images of pregnant women being punched and kicked repeatedly in what must be an attempt to induce a miscarriage, of children stuffed in overcrowded, dirty cells, and of guards who take every opportunity to verbally berate the people in their care. Just what makes someone feel that he has the right to treat another human being in this way?

There are movies that are so great that you could watch them over and over. There are also great movies that are so tough to watch that you’d have a hard time finding the strength to endure a second viewing. I suspect for many Crossing will fall into this category. However, like In Our World, No Man’s Land, Savior, and countless other films about difficult topics, Crossing is an important film. It puts things we may hear and then forget about into images that have the potential to stay with us forever. If it succeeds in this – and in my opinion it does - then perhaps a second viewing is not necessary. The film will have already delivered its message, and we will already have been changed for the better. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia)

4 stars

*Crossing is in Korean and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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