Visiting the underrated Toronto Korean Film Festival

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When Yang, Sunho&rsquo;s mother, weeps, her body contorts, her mouth gapes, and her body shakes violently, but it&rsquo;s always silent, like the sadness knocked the wind out of her. Sunho was sent to North Korea 25 years ago when it was promised to be the &ldquo;paradise of the world&rdquo; in the film <em>Our Homeland</em>, a stunning Zainichi film screened at the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF).


The annual TKFF continued in its third year to bring Korean cinema to Toronto cinephiles. Korean classic cinema, queer shorts, Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) films, a short-film competition, and several feature movies were included in the five-day program. I caught the last two days at the Art Gallery of Ontario and spoke to the director of programming at TKFF, Yusuke Tanaka, on the decisions made in selecting Zainichi films.


The shorts competition prompted 108 submissions in mid-March.&nbsp; Of those films, eight were selected to screen at the festival. TKFF awarded Best Korean Canadian Short to Eui-Yong Zong, who directed <em>Conceived</em>. An experimental piece about Zong&rsquo;s birth story, Zong used a conversation with his parents as narration over stark, black-and-white imagery.


<em>Fever</em>, by Ji Won Oh, won Best Korean Short, in which the protagonist, Yujin, catches a summer fever after meeting her brother&rsquo;s friend. The cinematography is mesmerizing. Yujin&rsquo;s bedroom drapery and blankets are deep-toned red and burgundy and set against the pale-skinned, raven-haired protagonist. The additions to her bedroom captured her girliness: a bottle of Lola and a tin of chocolates guarded by a ring of decapitated Barbies.


&nbsp;The festival made bold choices in its feature film selections. In addition to a Zainichi shorts nights, the feature length film <em>Our Homeland</em> was screened at TKFF. <em>Our Homeland </em>is a Japanese movie based on the experiences of the director, Yonghi Yang, on growing up Zainichi.


&ldquo;I brought the idea of bringing Zainichi films &hellip; because it is not [simply] a foreign affairs issue,&rdquo; said Tanaka, a retired journalist and film critic who was previously a judge for the shorts competition and was the director of programming this year. &ldquo;Every time Japan has political problems with South Korea or North Korea, the victim is the Zainichi.&rdquo;


The Zainichi people are a group of fourth-generation Koreans living in Japan. They can trace their roots to the Korean diaspora during the Second World War, when labour shortages in Japan encouraged many to leave home. After the division of the Korean Peninsula, the Zainichi people were divided into those who applied for North Korean citizenship, and those who applied for South Korean citizenship.


Some Zainichi families were torn apart after family members immigrated to North Korea in the &lsquo;60s, when it was touted to be the &ldquo;paradise of the world,&rdquo; only to never be seen again. Many Zainichi remain un-naturalized, even though they have lived in Japan for many generations. Currently, the majority hold South Korean citizenship.


&ldquo;&lsquo;Go home&rsquo; is often thrown at Zianichi people,&rdquo; said Tanaka, making a parallel between the hardships faced by immigrants to the harassment faced by the Zainichi in Japan. &ldquo;I experienced harassment in 1986, when I came here &hellip; I was stoned by the neighbourhood kids. [Yusuke makes a throwing gesture] Snowballs.&rdquo;


Tanaka moved to an east-end neighbourhood in the &lsquo;80s, an old Scottish immigrant area, after marrying a Canadian. Down the street was the headquarters of a neo-Nazi organisation. In the spring, when the snow melted, the snowballs thrown at Tanaka changed to stones.&quot;


Tanaka looked tired, sitting crumpled in a chair in the middle of a plaza. But he was intensely focused, furrowing his brow fervently when he recalls a name or an event. &ldquo;I relate myself to the Zainichi,&rdquo; said Tanaka. His brother-in-law would tell him to &ldquo;go home&rdquo; in arguments.&nbsp;


The director of <em>Our Homeland</em>, Yang, is the daughter of a high official in Chosun Soren, the largest North Korea supporter association outside of North Korea. Her father sent three of his sons to North Korea.


<em>Our Homeland</em> is about Sunho, who is granted temporary leave from North Korea to Japan, in order to treat his illness, after he was sent to North Korea at the age of 16 by his father. The film centres on the family&rsquo;s temporary reunion 25 years later. Although Yang&rsquo;s brothers never returned home, the biographical aspect of the movie is in the relationship between Rie, the daughter who remained in Japan, and her father.


The 144-minute movie is gripping and emotionally exhausting. Sunho, played by Arata Iura, emphatically portrayed the devastation that comes from being so profoundly out of options. When Suni, Sunho&rsquo;s childhood girlfriend, suggests running away together, Sunho looks at her with downturned eyes: &ldquo;&hellip;I don&rsquo;t want you to lose your smile.&rdquo;


<em>Our Homeland</em> was Japan&rsquo;s submission for the 85th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. For trailers, director bios, and a full list of the films shown at TKFF, visit tkff.ca.


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<em>Updated: This story previously stated,&nbsp;&quot;In the spring, when the snowballs thrown at Tanaka&rsquo;s house all melted, stones, previously hidden inside the snow, remained gathered around his house.&quot; It has been corrected for accuracy.</em>