The following documentary film reviews have been received at Pacific Affairs and will be published in the print edition within the next 12-18 months. Please note that minor textual changes may occur before final publication in our print and official online edition (hosted at IngentaConnect).
Last updated 6 September 2017
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PEOPLE ARE THE SKY. A film by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (94 min). US$395.00, universities, colleges, and institutions; US$89.00, K-12, public libraries, and select groups. In Korean and English, with English subtitles. URL http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c935.shtml.
People Are the Sky is a very personal film, and is better for it. Filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson was born in Sinch’ŏn, in present North Korea, during the colonial era. With her family, she came south to Seoul in 1945. After first leaving Korea for her doctoral studies in 1962, she decided after a brief experience of the repression of the Park Chung Hee government in 1970 to settle permanently in the United States. There she met and married her husband Don Gibson, with whom she eventually lived in his natal Iowa until his death in 2009. Kim-Gibson’s sorrow and her love for Don frame and suffuse the film. The title is something of a mobile metaphor throughout, but its first referent is the love Don had for the open Iowa sky and the open love he had for people, and the love for others that Kim-Gibson herself experienced with and through him.
In 2013, Kim-Gibson made a journey first to Seoul and then onwards to P’yŏngyang and finally to her hometown of Sinch’ŏn. People Are the Sky intersperses a chronicle of this trip with archival footage, over which Kim-Gibson narrates her own memories of important moments in modern Korean history, as well as interviews with scholars and activists in the United States, South Korea, and, eventually, North Korea. Many of these figures are quite well-known authors in the field: Charles Armstrong, Bruce Cumings, Suk-Young Kim, Kim Dong-choon, and Hwang Sok-yong, for instance, all make significant appearances. As a result, the film offers both a personal and a critical-scholarly review of important turning points in modern Korean history, from colonialism and its end to the US-Soviet occupation, division, the Korean War, postwar development, and political shifts in both South and North. One could do much worse than to show this film in a classroom or public education setting as an introduction to how the Koreas became divided and why they have stayed that way, along with connected issues such as the ongoing US military presence in the South, human rights, and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
Yet to watch People Are the Sky only as a critical documentary would be to miss much of what is moving and important about it. At one point, Kim-Gibson makes a short narrative detour to discuss the nineteenth-century Korean indigenous new religion of Tonghak. At first, this struck me as an odd tangent in a film otherwise concerned with the present and more recent past—and in truth, the significance of the moment may be lost on many audiences. But as she goes on with her explanation, it becomes clear that through her journey and through the film itself she seeks to embody the Tonghak belief in innaech’ŏn, the immanence of heaven in humanity. People, once again, are the sky. Kim-Gibson brings this deep humanism to her encounters in both South and North Korea. She is at once a forward, vivacious, and sympathetic interviewer of ordinary people. For example, while her scholar and activist interlocutors present a critical evaluation of US aims in South Korea since 1945, when she interviews ordinary people she allows the diversity and ambivalence of South Korean opinion on the ongoing US military presence to come forth. She seeks out children in public places when she has the chance, making older ones practice their English, addressing younger ones with the sort of patter familiar from many a Korean grandmother (“What’s your name?” “How pretty!”).
Indeed, who Kim-Gibson is both socially and personally and thus the character of her rapport matters a great deal to the high quality of People Are the Sky, and makes it stand out from other films that promise—the trope itself is tired—a glimpse into North Korea. She possesses a common historical experience and social intimacy with many of the people she interviews, and at moments takes advantage of the sort of social license accorded older women in Korea. When she asks older people about their lives during the war, they open up to her as someone who shared the same tragedy. When she goes to a North Korean veterans’ event and talks with one old soldier, it is the mutual emotional catharsis of liberation in 1945 that comes through over and above his glorification of the role of Kim Il Sung. And when, in a P’yŏngyang park, her minder curtails her attempts to ask questions of schoolchildren (the mediation of her trip by guides and minders is addressed quite directly), Kim-Gibson is annoyed but also has a laugh with him in a way that releases the ideological tension of the moment by asking one final inappropriate question to someone she recognizes as doing his job. May I talk to those trees over there, and are there questions I should not ask? Notwithstanding the painful history the film explores, Kim-Gibson’s warm humour is prominent. She makes self-deprecating jokes about her wild hair, and invites others to join in. “Fashionable,” one old North Korean woman finally says, and everyone laughs; Kim-Gibson crows in triumph to her guide.
When she finally gets to Sinch’ŏn, she recognizes little from her youth. She is taken to another North Korean memorial to another act of American malfeasance, the Sinch’ŏn Massacre of 1950, and joins a site interpreter, whose family was killed there, in a wider sorrow for the human losses of the period. But then she goes to another park and meets more children there, on a school trip from across the country, and has with them the easy dialogue she was unable to have in P’yŏngyang. Shortly after, she goes to Kŭmgang Mountain, and is surprised by how hard the climb is, but is patiently assisted by her uncomplaining guide for the hours up and down. From these last incidents Kim-Gibson arrives at a heartfelt, if not unexpected, conclusion: her home place may be gone, but she shares the sky with North Korea’s people. As a historical film, People Are the Sky is excellent; as a work of art, it is beautiful.
Robert Oppenheim, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA