Yonghi Yang and her parents are Zainichi, meaning a Korean who lives in Japan. During the division of Korea in 1948 and the war that followed, the Zainichi took sides just as those who dwelled on the peninsula did. Yang’s parents had never been to North Korea, but were so enamoured of communism and the country that in 1971 Yang's father sent his three teenage sons to live in Pyongyang, the capital, as part of the Zainichi “Return Project.” This emigration occurred between the 1950s and 1970s when “Returnees” hoped for a better life in the “fatherland.” This better life never materialized, yet Returnees were forbidden to go back to Japan.
What Yang’s father's decision regarding his sons meant and still means to the family, and how her father now feels about his decision, form the core of this remarkable documentary (much of it shot in first-person POV, a rare occurrence in cinema). Yang interviews her septuagenarian father several times in homey circumstances. He jokes, laughs, sings, banters with his daughter, and gracefully accepts being made fun of. Yang teases out superbly this non-ideological side of her father. His decision about his sons was appalling—frightening in its implications of how political ideals distort the mind. Yet he’s likable and so loves his wife, daughter, sons, and grandkids that it’s almost possible to forgive the tragic mistake he made that his sons live out to this day.
An important thread of the story is Yang’s fortune compared to her brothers’. She was the youngest child, and only daughter, and so remained in Japan where she listened to the Beatles, took up videography, and decided that she had the right to choose her own career. By contrast, the brothers and their families lived in the pinched, highly controlled, and stagnant environment of Pyongyang. Footage that Yang shot as a schoolgirl when she visited her brothers several times over the years is deftly incorporated into the present-day journey to Pyongyang of her and her parents, and plays a crucial role in this contrast.
I won’t reveal the outcome of the narrative, but suffice it to say that Yang’s father's love for his daughter doesn’t fail when she needs an important answer from him. Criticisms? Well, toward the end, Yang’s camera shoved in her father’s helpless face shades into a passive-aggressive assault.
The film is DIY to the max, so its technical aspects can be roughhewn. Yang apparently shot the present-day footage on a consumer-quality digicam. The limitations of this kind of equipment and shooting do crop up. Sometimes the image is overexposed or underexposed. Occasionally the camera work is deliriously shaky. Sometimes the dialogue is not synched properly, and sometimes it’s obscured, for example, by wrapping paper being scrunched because the mic isn’t well placed.
Yet Dear Pyongyang—a sad and ironic title—tells so compelling a family tale with so many political ramifications that its production flaws don’t matter a whit. This “little” film has a big mind and heart. Though it often seems as if it were made for six dollars—all right, make it ten—it’s worth a dozen megabuck Hollywood blockbusters.