“Our School” sees documentary film maker Kim Myung Joon taking on a potentially fascinating and unique subject in deciding to explore and follow the lives of students and staff at a school set up in Japan by Korean immigrants in 1945 to protect their own culture, language and sense of identity. The film itself has an interesting history, with Kim building upon the work of his late wife, the acclaimed Jo Eun Ryeong and her own 2003 documentary “Hanareul Weehye”.
Documentary films have been proving more and more popular in Korea of late, and “Our School” was certainly a great success both commercially and critically, managing a highly impressive 70,000 box office admissions and being voted Best Korean Independent film of 2007. The documentary basically catalogues the three and a half years spent by Kim at the school, which is in snowy Hokkaido, Northern Japan. During this time he accompanies the pupils and teachers through their daily classes, meetings, sporting events and concerts, as well as conducting a series of interviews and following them on a variety of trips. The most interesting of these comes with a school visit to North Korea, and whilst the director himself was not allowed to travel with them, one of the pupils shot some fascinating footage of life in the secretive country.
As a documentary, “Our School” basically seems to have two aims, firstly to depict life at the school and the particular challenges faced by the students, and secondly to explore themes of Korean nationality and identity. These to an extent divide the film into two parts, of which the latter is arguably the more interesting and more successfully tackled. This is mainly due to the fact that although a documentary, the film is an openly subjective piece of work, with Kim gradually getting to know the students and indeed becoming part of their lives both inside and outside of the classroom. Whilst this in itself is by no means a criticism, and indeed lends the film an effectively personal and honest aspect, it does to an extent mean that there are times during the first half when it would have benefited from a little more judicious editing– for example during basketball and football games which each run on for more than five minutes. Of course, this is not to suggest that this part of the film is dull, as it still features a wealth of interesting scenes. However, while it arguably helps Kim to present an accurate picture of life for the students and to capture a sense of their competitiveness, it does detract from the overall focus and slows the pace down, a serious consideration when taken into account that the film runs for over two hours.
The latter section of the film dealing with identity works somewhat better as the school offers a truly unique perspective on the issue, having been founded before the North-South Korean divide was established, with many of the students having the old general ‘Chosun’ nationality, and due to the fact that it is sponsored in part by the North Korean government. This drive for identity is seen through the school’s efforts to make the students aware of their nationality despite being surrounded by foreign culture, insisting that they wear traditional costumes (something which poses a real problem for the unfortunate female students given the freezing temperatures), speak only in Korean while on the campus and learn traditional songs and dances.
Making things even more difficult is the discrimination, distrust and often-outright hostility the school faces from the Japanese, particularly during the last few years with the resurgence of right wing interests in the government, which has seen them sadly struggle to be allowed to compete in sporting events and to get funding. Though the trip to North Korea comes later on in the film it is arguably its centrepiece and is worth the price of admission alone, giving a rare peek at the country, which is very much at odds with its demonised image. Especially after this visit, the students themselves make a number of fascinating observations as to their feelings on their home countries, which they tellingly refer to as motherland and fatherland.
Ultimately however, it is the children themselves who are the real stars of the show and whose smiling faces and whose compelling stories lift “Our School” from being a documentary likely only to appeal to Korean audiences to a story which should be enjoyed by even the most casual of viewers. Although it could perhaps have been a little shorter, it still manages to engage throughout and Kim certainly provides an insightful and thought-provoking exploration of such an intriguing subject.
Kim Myeong-joon (director) / Kim Myeong-joon (screenplay)
CAST: Park So-hyeon