“Crossing” is the latest film to tackle the North South Korean divide, a highly emotive subject which has inspired a number of heart searching works in recent years. The film represents somewhat of a change of pace for director Kim Tae Kyun, previously known for commercial hits such as the brash, special effects heavy “Volcano High” and the romantic melodrama “First Kiss”. Here, he focuses very much on the human side of the story, which was based upon real life events, attempting to highlight the plight of refugees and the hardships they face in their journeys. The film was chosen as Korea’s official foreign-language film submission for the 2008 Oscars, and it’s not hard to see why, as it not only deals with a deeply felt subject on a national scale, but more importantly manages to tap into the concerns of everyday people caught up in the complex situation created by the divide.
The film begins in North Korea with coal miner and ex-football player Yong Soo (Cha In Pyo, also in the nationalistic thriller “Hanbando”) just about managing to get by. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife (Seo Young Hwa) falls ill and he is forced to illegally cross into China in search of medicine, leaving her behind in the care of his young son Jun (newcomer Shin Myung Cheol). Things don’t go as planned, and Yong Soo is chased by the police and forced to flee to South Korea, where he is resettled and finds himself unable to return home. Meanwhile, his wife passes away, and Jun sets off for China to try and find his father.
As should be obvious, “Crossing” is very much a tearjerker, and Kim certainly lays on the tragedies. Thankfully, he manages to do so without being too heavy handed, and the film never strays too far into melodrama in its depiction of the physical suffering and emotional anguish of refugees. Largely eschewing politics, the film wisely concentrates wholly on the respective journeys of Yong Soo and Jun, both of which are gripping and moving, thanks in part to worthy performances from Cha In Pyo and Shin Myung Cheol, who manage to make their characters far more than mere pity-magnets.
Although in moral terms the film is a little black and white, it’s impossible not to feel for them as they struggle not to start new lives or to escape from oppression, but simply to reunite. Their travels take them from the North to China and Mongolia, across rivers and deserts, and as such the film does have the feel of an epic at times, though Kim underplays the vistas and never dwells upon any trite notions of heroism.
The film is suitably harsh in places, especially during a section set in a North Korean labour camp and re-education centre, with shocking scenes of children being brutalised and of corpses being left for the rats. This helps to ground the film and to distract from some of its more clichéd elements, and gives it a much needed sense of realism. This is undermined somewhat by the soundtrack, which all too often degenerates into soft string sappiness, and Kim’s overuse of slow motion flashbacks to happier times, with the viewer being shown a sepia tinted scene of Yong Soo and Jun playing football with stones whenever a quick tug at the heartstrings is needed. Similarly, a subplot involving Yong Soo being given a bible which he can’t understand is never properly developed, and although Kim seems keen to add some sort of spiritual element to his ordeal, it comes across only as an afterthought.
Still, such criticisms do not get in the way of “Crossing” being emotionally engaging and searchingly humanistic, and it stands as one of the better and more genuine films to explore the North South Korean divide. Kim manages the difficult task of avoiding the obvious political pitfalls, and through this it transcends its subject matter, and successfully draws on the pain of being separated from loved ones.
Tae-gyun Kim (director) / Lee Yu-jin (screenplay)
CAST: In-Pyo Cha