Yodok Stories

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Bergen International Film Festival

BERGEN, Norway -- “High melodrama, as if Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to put an Amnesty International report to music.” That was one critic’s reaction to the North Korean concentration-camp musical “Yoduk Story,” when it bowed in a Washington D.C. theater two years ago. A Broadway transfer was always a longshot, but the bizarre extravaganza -- devised by defector Jung Sun Sang, and performed by others who have escaped from the pariah totalitarian state -- now reaches a much wider audience thanks to this unusual, enthralling documentary.

A lengthy film-festival run looks assured, not just at human-rights-themed events, and adventurous arthouse distributors should give it a look.

What the American theater-critics largely failed to mention was that “Yoduk Story” -- named after ‘re-education camp’ number 15, considered the most “lenient” of North Korean’s extensive, secret gulags -- was initiated by veteran Polish documentarian Andrzej Fidyk, whose 1989 “The Parade” chronicled the elaborately-synchronized public performances staged under the regime of dictator Kim Il-Sung. Though aware that political repression had, if anything, gotten worse under Kim’s son and heir Kim Jong-Il, Fidyk realized that he would never be able to film in the camps himself. His solution was to persuade Jung to create what became “Yoduk Story” based on testimony from various former inmates and guards.

This somewhat round-about method proves unexpectedly successful as the defectors talk with clarity and eloquence about the nightmarish conditions at Yodok. The cooking of unborn rats is only the beginning of what becomes a truly horrifying catalogue of atrocities. Equally disturbing is that such revelations will come as news to so many western ears.

Fidyk alternates between talking-head interviews with the contributors and extracts from the finished musical, a high-kitsch affair whose histrionic “Springtime For Kim” excesses initially seem tastelessly absurd, but take on a decidedly chilling and sinister air in conjunction with the real-life stories that unfold. We’re never told, however, whether this particular mode of pyrotechnic musical theater exemplifies specifically Korean tastes.

It is unfortunate that in a film which is an indictment of propaganda, Fidyk occasionally veers towards presenting South Korea (where lucky citizens, we’re informed, enjoy access to “Internet and credit-cards”) through rosy-tinted spectacles. It would also have been helpful if Fidyk had corroborated these plausible but essentially anecdotal tales with contributions from objective, respected human-rights bodies. Overall, however, this is urgent, sobering stuff.

Production companies: Piraya Film
Director: Andrzej Fidyk.
Screenwriters: Andrzej Fidyk, Torstein Grude.
Executive producers: Torstein Grude, Bjarte Morner Tveit, Miroslaw Grubek, Therese Jebsen, Jan Ramstad
Producer: Torstein Grude.
Director of photography: Tore Vollan.
Music: Kyung Chan Cha, Bartlomiej Wozniak.
Editor: Jan Mikolaj Mironowicz
Sales Agent: Piraya Film.
No rating, 83 minutes.

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