'Mrs. B., A North Korean Woman' ('Madame B, histoire d'une nord-coreenne'): Cannes Review

Mrs B. A North Korean Woman still 1 - h 2016
Courtesy of Jeonju International Film Festival
A compact chronicle of a refugee's confused existence.

South Korean filmmaker Jero Yun's documentary, about a North Korean defector's life in China and Seoul, will travel to Cannes' ACID sidebar after its bow at Jeonju.

Four years after delivering his first feature, a documentary about North Korean refugees stranded in Chinese border towns, the French-educated and Seoul-based filmmaker Jero Yun returns with a more extensive and focused depiction of the life of one of these exiles. Comprising footage filmed across three years, Mrs. B., A North Korean Woman offers a compact chronicle of its titular protagonist's transformation from a trafficker in China to a disillusioned worker in South Korea.

Illustrating a defector's difficulties in finding security and peace of mind after her successful escape from North Korea, Mrs. B reveals the flip side of freedom as experienced by these refugees — the latest in a line of similarly themed films such as the fictional features of Zhang Lu's Desert Dream (2007) or Park Jung-bum's Journals of Musan (2011).

A France-Korea co-production boasting a nearly entirely French technical crew, Mrs. B. will make its international bow next week at Cannes' ACID sidebar after its world premiere in South Korea last month at the Jeonju International Film Festival. Boasting an intriguingly complex protagonist, on-the-ball topicality and support from France's World Cinema Fund, Yun's film is poised for an even more sustained run on the festival circuit than his previous documentary, Looking for North Koreans, in 2012. (Yun's new fictional short, Hitchhiker, also features at Cannes this year in the Directors' Fortnight program.) 

The documentary begins in February 2013, when Mrs. B. — whose full name is never revealed — is shown conducting her human-trafficking business like a pro, transporting paying defectors across town in the night and haggling (in Korean and also fluent Mandarin) with her clients and associates during the day. But her own voiceover outlines her past: Originally planning to hop over the border in 2003 for a month of better-paid work in China, Mrs. B — who was already 36 when she left her husband and two sons in North Korea — ended up being sold to a farming family seeking a bride for their single, slightly mentally challenged son.

But Mrs. B's story soon veers away from the usual human-trafficking narrative. Her startling transformation from cargo to handler, for example, stems from a surprisingly swift reconciliation with her new life in China. Rather than fighting against an abusive and exploitative marriage imposed on her, Mrs. B — the breadwinner in the house with her smuggling business — gets along well with her Chinese husband and his mother. As Yun follows her preparations to leave to join her escaped North Korean family in Seoul, Mrs. B says she "feels empty" and "sick" for having to leave her Chinese family behind. In turn, her impoverished mother-in-law persists in gifting Mrs. B money to look after her boys in South Korea, while also hoping she will return one day.

Following an interlude chronicling Mrs. B's escape — footage showing her and some fellow North Koreans crisscrossing China and southeast Asia by train, on foot, across plains and over mountains to reach a migrants' detention center in Bangkok — the documentary shifts forward by two years. Mrs. B's brash, motorbiking, fixer persona in China has practically vanished, replaced by that of a meek, lowly office janitor in a uniform. Rather than finding happiness in a "free" country, she recalls being hassled by the South Korean intelligence services upon her arrival because of her trafficking past. Her husband has become a broken man because of a similar ordeal, and their two teenage sons seethe with both fury and frustration about their new reality, a lingering bitterness hardly alleviated by all the food, television dramas and cellphones they have access to.

With every twist in Mrs. B's story — the final one being her frank admission of where her true love and affiliation lies — Yun revealed sentiments very much out of sync with the mainstream representations of North Korea, its people and its relationship with its neighbors. Refraining from making simple moral judgments on his subjects, Yun has delivered a powerful if somehow truncated depiction of displaced individuals wrought with both persistence and doubts.

Production companies: Zorba Production, Su:m
Director-screenwriter: Jero Yun
Producers: Guillaume de la Boulaye, Cha Jae-keun
Directors of photography: Jero Yun, Tawan Arun
Editors: Nadia Ben Radhid, Pauline Casalis, Sophie Pouleau, Jean-Marie Lengellé
Music: Mathieu Regnault
International sales: Doc & Film International

In Korean and Mandarin

No rating, 71 minutes