Filmmaker Yang Yonghi Vows to be 'Offshore Troublemaker' to Protect Family in North Korea

NEW YORK, August 3, 2013 — A sold-out screening of Our Homeland (2012) by Korean Japanese filmmaker YANG Yonghi closed the 36th Asian American International Film Festival with a heartfelt and emotional touch. Inspired by YANG's true family story of separation, the film won the heart of the audience which erupted in explosive applause mixed with shouts of "Bravo" at the first sight of the ending credits. YANG spoke in a discussion following the film moderated by Film Curator La Frances HUI.

From the late '50s to early '70s, a repatriation campaign sent over 90,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan to live in North Korea, which promised jobs, education, medical care and no discrimination. Among those who left Japan were the filmmaker's three brothers, then teenagers. Yang was six years old at the time and stayed with her parents in Japan. It soon became apparent that North Korea could not fulfill its promises. For decades, Yang's mother sent care packages to Pyongyang to support her three sons and their families. None of them were allowed to travel to Japan with the exception of one brother who was given permission to make a temporary medical visit.

That short family reunion became the basis for Our Homeland, a wrenching family drama that captures the searing emotions of separation, guilt, memory, and belonging. A middle-aged man (ARATA Iura) returns home from North Korea to his family in Japan after 25 years. He is accompanied by a North Korean agent (YANG Ik-June) who makes sure he does not fall for the way of capitalism. A younger sister (ANDO Sakura), modeled after filmmaker Yang, grapples with her anger toward the country that has turned her brother into a prisoner. Stripped of melodrama and sentimental excess, the film channels powerful and true emotions that are grounded in authentic experiences.

Yang has made two documentary films, Dear Pyongyang (2005) and Sona, the Other Myself (2010), about her family in Pyongyang and Osaka. Our Homeland marks her first foray into fiction. During the discussion, Yang explained the opportunities that fiction offered to convey stories and thoughts that could not be conveyed otherwise, "There are so many stories that my family members can't tell in front of the camera…Making fiction means putting the camera inside of the body, the mind, or the brain. The camera can shoot what people really think about, how people really feel."

Because of her documentaries, which have provided a glimpse into the sufferings that repatriated Koreans have endured after moving to North Korea, Yang has been banned from visiting the country. But the filmmaker is determined to continue her work. "Since I started to make documentaries, I always worried if my films were harmful to my family members there… But after the documentaries, I really changed my attitude and my mind… I decided to be an offshore troublemaker to protect my family. I really needed to be famous as a troublemaker. Then the government cannot touch my family. There's no guarantee but that's my decision."

To learn more about Our Homeland and watch a trailer, click here.

Video: Watch the complete Q&A (31 min., 58 sec.)