"Do you allow the song to sing you or do you try to sing the song" (Greil Marcus on Van Morrison´s "Madame George" in "When that rough god goes riding"
As I watched KAZOKU NO KUNI the third time yesterday evening - this time with pen and paper - I was thinking again what makes the films by Yang Yonghi so special. It is relatively easy for me to express why I feel so connected with these films, why I identify so much with her films. But I am occupied at the same time with these feelings the films evoke in me as with the thoughts about cinema they evoke in me also.
Let´s call KAZOKU NO KUNI Yang Yonghi´s "project Q", her first attempt to work with fictional-elements.
When I was younger - and obviously more dogmatic - I really believed there are something like holy laws of film making. Ozu (whom I still love and adore), Bresson or Straub/Huillet were a kind of manifest and documentaries were not allowed to be far away from Peter Nestler (whom I considered long time as the Holy Grail of documentary film). With Ritwik Ghatak, Shaan Khattau, Marilu Mallet and recently Terrence Malick I learned there are no sacred laws of cinema, every one (Ozu included) re-invents for him/herself cinema.
Some people who have read my text on SONA; THE OTHER MYSELF mind have felt estranged by this strange comparison between Yang and Malick. While seeing DEAR PYONGYANG I thought of the first films made by the Lumiére Brothers and now while seeing KAZOKU NO KUNI, I felt the reservoir of thousand of possibilities to make (archived in the history of cinema) films are still fresh possibilities for Yang. Let´s face it - it the majority of filmmakers today , including some very talented are quite unable to deal with the enormous options of the nearly 120 years old history of films. There is nearly nothing which wasn´ t already told, nearly no technique which wasn´t used. While too much (masters like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami included) are too much worried about repeating themselves or things which were already done in cinema, films like the ones by Yang Yonghi are extremely refreshing unprejudiced, authentic until the bones and beyond. In KAZOKU NO KUNI, there is a kind of minimalistic approach with long shots filmed with handhold camera. Even more: As Yang is (even though mostly invisible) the main character in her first two documentaries and even physical present like Chaplin in almost all his films, KAZOKU NO KUNI is a completely new approach for her. Not only that the "mise en scene" replaces here the montage, but also her working with actors/actresses. Most of them are even non-Koreans. It is also important hat KAZOKU NO KUNI is her first film where her camera work is replaced by a director of photography.
I still remember the first press screening of SONA, 2 years ago which I attended with one of my contributors. He found "that film nice" but doubted if she (Yang) will ever be able to go beyond her family story) I said if she will make until the rest of her life films like DEAR PYONGYANG or SONA, I will be fine with it. As a matter of fact these "little home movies" reveal more inspiration, imagination than a lot of Brecht -, and Bresson educated filmmakers who don´t even dare to dream of such an inspiration. As microscopic her view seems in its context of Korean history into the micro cosmos of the Yang family, her films are not less exciting than Hou Hsiao hsiens Taiwan trilogy or Ghataks refugee-trilogy.
The minimalistic approach of KAZOKU NO KUNI seems to me almost a necessary reaction on her extremely moving, heartbreaking and stirring SONA, THE OTHER MYSELF. SONA… ended with a photograph (Yang and her very sick father ( a picture as moving like the Aria "Have mercy, oh Lord) from Johann Sebastian Bach´s St. Mathews Passion) and a daring flashback (after her father and brother passed away) to a happy moment with her family in Pyongyang. If DEAR PYONGYANG was the daring experiment, an approach of "camera stylo", SONA (often misunderstood as a sequel of DEAR P…) was the final poetic achievement of her "song about Herself". To continue in this form of an essay-like, explicit autobiographical form was impossible at least for a while. Not, that I ever can imagine to be bored by Yang Yonghi, But for her sake. her surviving mentally and probably physically, the step to KAZOKU NO KUNI in this case to replace her own body with an avatar in form of actress Sakura Ando was a compelling necessity.The same with replacing her own camara work through a director of photography (her camera work was in her first two films more or less like an invisble protagonist.
I am sure Ritwik Ghatak this "Super Nova" of Indian cinema didn´t die with 50 only because of alcoholism and TB sheets, but also about his lack of ability to deal with the enormous power of his passion and his trauma, especially after his finest film SUBARNAREKHA. There are many other examples where famous directors reached the limit of what they can bear mentally and physically.
Only on the surface the emotions in KAZOKU NO KUNI are reserved, - even oppressed sometimes. They find their expression in pure physical actions. After Rie has expressed her anger and hate against the "watchman" from Northern Korea, who controls every step of her brother in Japan, she walks several circuits, like a depressed and disturbed animal prisoned in a zoo. When the characters have to fight with their anger, despair and at the same time with the necessity to control themselves, they are close to blast. The brother´s confrontation with his ignorant father who has sent him to North Korea, he tremors and shivers his heart out. The characters in Yang´s first feature films are close to the characters in Ghatak´s trilogy, they bump their heads against a wall and when they realize there is a wall, they bump again and again. This wall is perceptible in KAZOKU NO KUNI like a gravitation field. The emotions between the characters: Father-daughter, brother father, the tenderness between sister and brother, brother and his lover, the brother and his homosexual schoolmate in this ordinary and concrete family story have in such moments the power of cosmic processes. You feel the heat of mental furnaces under the surface of the characters, a heat which can burn us, the filmmaker and me at the same time.
It belongs together, my very personal passion and even obsession for the films by Yang Yonghi, especially this subject "family" but as well the fact these films (three different but equally powerful works) remind me in the matter we all are existing of atoms produced in a gigantic star before its blast.
There is still much more to say about this film, a film you can access from different sides and obviously a Korean especially one who lives in Japan will have a different perspective. Once could write a long text on the presence of human bodies in this film, how Yang uses the space like the narrow apartment rooms or the outside locations. One can think about how she works here with time. In KAZOKU NO KUNI there is no jumping back in time forwards and backwards, but small moments where you see the protagonist´s lived or not lived past shines through the present images. One small but subtle moment is when Sonho walks to his parent´t s house. He walks like in a dream, because he hasn´t seen this environment for 25 years. The camera is often moved, sometimes slow and subtle sometimes moved with the characters running or hasting. Nothing is stable, everything is in movement.
One can think about how Yang forces here the dialogue and the silence and so on. And you never will be finished or tired to see the film again.
When I was much younger and in a kind very dogmatic I thought that identification and reflection are opposites, like Illusion and reality. You can reflect about the Korean history in Yang Yonghi´s films but I doubt it this possible without having felt it first through the intensity of her films.
If you remember the long introduction from DEAR PYONGYANG about the "North Koreans" living in Japan, "returning" to their homeland. she gives a brief historical overview.
First gesture:" This is the story of my people, my history." (specified in Koreans living in Japan) than as she describes how thousands of families, parents and little girls take farewell from their brothers "returning" to the "homeland" - Some of them with tears in their eyes. "One of this girls was me". Than the gesture is: "This film is about me as a part of my people and their history."
There is scene of a class reunion with Sonha and his friends he hasn´t seen for 25 years. In one moment (it is forbidden to Sonha to sing Japanese songs) one of his friends take the guitar and sing a very nostalgic love , Sonha loved once. First he is silent than he sings along, the others stop singing. We never know what he is thinking, feeling, but the song as a memory in the lost love of his youth gives us a small idea. Yang Yonghi does not only reinvent her own cinema, she also wins back a lot of the beauty and glory cinema has lost. On the other hand - how Yang Yonghi deals with all the problems and questions about making a documentary or a fictive film seems to me on the highest level I can imagine. All her three films doesn´t seem to have a volitional form. She has found a suitable aesthetic form for all her films by her incredible instict. There are films like KAZOKU NO KUNI which stay with me forever until my very last breath.
Ritwik Ghatak once said: "Before art shall be beautiful it must be true." I think there is no better description for the authenticity of the films by Yang Yonghi.