The fallout from a darker chapter of Japanese-Korean relations is explored in an intimate drama about a family torn apart by borders.
From 1959, the North Korean government implemented a policy of repatriation of Korean nationals living in Japan, promising them freedom from oppression and a better way of life. Welcomed by the US ambassador to Japan at the time, Douglas MacArthur II, who saw the ethnic minority of Koreans in Japan as “communists” and “criminals”, the policy officially lasted for over two decades. Those who went to North Korea could not expect to return, and even recently only small groups of Japanese were allowed to leave North Korea for temporary visits. Osaka born Yang Yong-Hi, a second-generation North Korean Japanese woman, has been frank about her dual identity in the documentary Dear Pyongyang (2005), and the time she spent with her family in North Korea in Sona, the Other Myself (2010).
In Our Homeland, Son-Ho (Arata) is permitted to return to Japan to visit his family for the first time in twenty-five years to receive three months of medical treatment. Son-Ho took some poor family advice to repatriate to North Korea when he was sixteen, and his return is only the result of his family’s lengthy efforts in the local Korean-Japanese Association. Accompanied by the ever-present Mr. Yang (Yang Ik-June), ensuring that his ‘Comrade’ does not succumb to the perils of the West, Son-Ho struggles to reconnect with his sister Rie (Sakura Ando) and his family, knowing he can never fully be a part of their lives.
Just as Son-Ho can never be fully comfortable with his impermanent life in Japan, viewers of Our Homeland can never fully settle into its soap-like rhythm. Son-Ho himself shuffles through the film almost wordlessly, with much of the dramatic tension existing between Rie and Mr. Yang. Indeed, this is very much Sakura Ando’s film, a stand-in for Rie perhaps, as the film rapidly shifts its focus from Son-Ho to Rie. As a result, it is difficult to get a handle on who the emotional tent-pole of the film is, and Mr. Yang becomes by far the most interesting character. When not tailing the family, we catch glimpses of him enjoying women dancing on television, but he never publicly drops his facade.
Often drearily shot, to convey the impending sadness that awaits this party-faithful family, there is an emotional distance that exists within Our Homeland. This is equally true of the family themselves, but what Yang does manage to achieve is a great deal of unspoken emotion within this small window in time. When it finally does explode, it is brief and also contained. Ultimately, this illuminates a very real issue that still exists for many families, with North Korean unwilling to provide the exact number and names of Japanese still surviving in the country.
Our Homeland played at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012.