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Sincerely earnest intentions aren’t enough to save Our Homeland (Kazoku no kuni), writer-director Yang Yonghi‘s patience-taxing tale of a Korean-Japanese man temporarily returning to his family after 25 years in North Korea. A debut fictional feature from Yang after two documentaries – all of them dealing with similar issues deriving from her own life-experiences – it manages the unlikely and unfortunate combination of being both drab and histrionic. Ongoing global fascination with North Korean politics and society, sharpened by recent upheavals in the ultra-secretive Communist nation, will nevertheless ensure plentiful festival bookings – especially at events specializing in human-rights themes and which primarily select on the basis of subject-matter rather than cinematic merit.
Though he looks as though he’s in his early thirties, Yun Songho (Iura Arata) is actually 41 – having ill-advisedly returned to the land of his ancestors at 16, a decision partly triggered by bullying resulting from long-established Korean/Japanese enmities. After five years of behind-the-scenes string-pulling effort by his well-connected relations in Japan, who are active in their local Korean-Japanese Association, Songho is granted an “unofficial” visit for medical treatment. He’s accompanied by stern Mr Yang (Yang Ik-June), who keeps watchful eyes on ‘Comrade Yun’ to ensure he isn’t seduced by capitalist luxury. The self-effacing Songho is rapturously received by his ageing parents, and by Rie (Ando Sakura), his twentysomething sister, whom he’s never met.
It’s unclear whose story Our Homeland is meant to be – the focus shifts fuzzily between Rie, who’s evidently a surrogate for writer/director Yang (2006’s Dear Pyongyang; 2010’s Sona, the Other Myself), and downtrodden Songho. “In that country, reason has no place,” he reflects, “You don’t ask questions, you just follow… Once you start thinking, you start losing your mind.” But Songho, whose youthful looks aren’t exactly an indictment of North Korean hardships, never really registers as more than a cipher, and the fish-out-of-water possibilities of his unusual perspective are largely unexplored. He breaks out of his subdued hush only occasionally – including one notably ill-judged bedroom scene in which, overheard by his father, he tries to recruit Rie as some kind of spy.
Indeed, the most engaging presence is Mr Yang – played by the writer-director-star of outstanding South Korean gangster thriller Breathless (2008). As in that movie, Yang exudes glowering menace with aplomb – indeed, he’s rather more street-thug than Communist apparatchik, and there’s some irony how it’s him who succumbs to ‘western’ temptations (he chugs beers while watching porno in his hotel) rather than his meek charge.
Family-man Mr Yang’s gradual humanization is one of the few surprising elements in an overlong, unimaginatively-directed affair which is otherwise predictable from the get-go – the script might have more profitably given him more screen-time instead of its soap-like concentration on the Yuns’ emotional travails. Other supporting players turn in broader turns, especially veteran Yoshiko Miyazaki (saintly Lady Sue from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic Ran) as Songho’s cartoonishly fretful mother, while Kotomi Kyôno is drippily demure as his parasol-twirling teenage crush.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 10, 2012
Production companies: Star Sands, Slow Learner
Cast: Ando Sakura, Iura Arata, Yang Ik-June, Kyono Kotomi, Tsukayama Masane
Director/Screenwriter: Yang Yonghi
Producers: Sato Junko, Koshikawa Michio
Director of photography: Toda Yoshihisa
Production designer: Toru Fujita
Costumes: Miyamoto Masae
Editor: Kikui Takashige
Music: Iwashiro Taro
Sales Agent: Star Sands, Tokyo
No rating, 100 minutes.
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