04 May 2010

Sona, the Other Myself (ソナ、もうひとりの私, 2009)

Tonight at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, audiences will get a chance to see the North American debut of Yonghi Yang’s latest documentary Sona, the Other Myself. According to the Hot Docs website, her earlier film Dear Pyongyang “deeply moved audiences at Hot Docs three years ago, but eventually led to the filmmaker being banned from North Korea.”

Sona, the Other Myself (Sona, mou hitori no watashi, 2009), begins by introducing the audience to her family’s difficult history. Yang (ヤン・ヨンヒ) is a Zainichi (在日) filmmaker – a permanent resident of Japan of Korean ethnicity. In the 1970s, her father, a communist and leader of the pro-North Korea faction in Japan, sent his three sons to live in North Korea under a repatriation campaign. At the time, the boys were all extremely young at ages 14, 16, and 18. Yonghi Yang, being the only daughter and only 6 years of age at the time, remains in Osaka with her parents. 

In Dear Pyongyang, Yang dealt with the difficult question of why her father sent his young sons alone to North Korea and stayed himself in the relative comfort of Japan. The decision to divide the family leads to great heartache for all members of the family. This theme continues to haunt in Sona, the Other Myself, but this time the focus shifts to the female members of the family.

Sona, the director’s young niece, is the only daughter of her middle brother. In fact, she is the only granddaughter in the family – their little princess. During the question and answer period via Skype that followed the film’s screening at Nippon Connection, Yang revealed that she began collecting footage of Sona from the time of her birth, with the intention of putting together a video that could be played one day when the girl grew up and got married. Such a video is commonplace in the industrialized world, but unheard of in North Korea, where the people have limited access to video technology.

The footage that makes up the documentary was shot during Yang’s visits to her family over a 15 year period. The image quality and shaky camera have a home movie feel to them but now and then, Yang delights with her filmmakers’ eye for poetic framing. As the only girl in a family of boys, Yang identifies closely with Sona as the only granddaughter among many grandsons. This gave rise to the films self-reflexive title.

The film takes a dramatic turn early on when Sona’s mother dies due to an ectopic pregnancy. The scene of a brave 6 year old Sona praying at her mother’s grave is indescribably moving. The film captures Sona in other very intimate familial scenes: the dinner to celebrate her father’s remarriage, Yang buying Sona and her brothers ice cream (a rare treat) at the foreign currency store, Sona going to school and so on. The footage of Yang’s family in North Korea is counterbalanced by footage shot in Osaka, where Yang captures her mother lovingly preparing care parcels for her sons’ families and her father’s declining health.

I felt myself sharing the filmmaker’s concern for the well-being of her North Korean family, as well as a growing trepidation as the film went on about how the release of the film would impact young Sona’s life. As she grows older, we get glimpses of how aware Sona is of the camera and what it means politically for her to be filmed. Although she doesn’t express this directly, it becomes apparent that Sona knows what she can and cannot say when the camera is turned on. This culminates in a powerful sequence in which Sona gestures for her aunt to turn off the camera and Yang tells us via title cards the conversation that they had once the camera was turned off.

Sona, the Other Myself, is the most moving documentary that I have seen in a long time and I highly recommend it. It can be seen tonight at 9:30pm at the Cumberland 2 and on Friday at 1:30pm at the ROM Theatre. The DVD of Dear Pyongyang is unfortunately only available in Japanese and Korean. I do hope that a European or North American distributor picks it up soon.

Summary of Q&A via Skype with Yonghi Yang

What do her brothers do for a living in North Korea?
  • her eldest brother works as a Japanese-Korean translator, her middle brother is an architect, her youngest brother works in trade
  • her family in North Korea cannot make a comfortable living for themselves with their incomes and rely upon the black market and the generous parcels sent to them by her mother
How did her film Dear Pyonyang affect the family?
  • Her mother can still visit North Korea and has gone back to visit the grave of her son
  • Yonghi Yang is forbidden from entering the country
  • her family in North Korea seems to be okay and they tell her that she should not worry about them
  • she has to be careful about what she does, although she has their permission to do her work
  • she was asked to write an apology letter to the North Korean government and she refused
  • she can’t give up her work because Sona and her other North Korean family members would be disappointed in her if she gave up
The footage looks like home video footage, but at the same time there are moments that seem very deliberately framed. Did you take the footage intending to make a documentary?

  • the early footage was shot on a High 8 camera. Sona was the first granddaughter and thus the family’s ‘first princess.’ Yang fell in love her from the very first visit.
  • she wanted to make a short collection of video clips that could be shown at her wedding one day. That is something that most families in North Korea are unable to do for their children• she started filming, and after a time realized what an interesting story her family had
  • filming without permission in North Korea is very difficult
  • she told Sona’s father about the idea of making a documentary about Sona and he loved the idea. Sona’s father is the brother that she is closest to.
  • she was worried that making the documentary about Sona would be too risky
  • she talks about how brave her brother, Sona’s father, is
  • she fears for Sona’s safety now that she’s releasing the documentary to the public

How long can this project go on? (ie making documentaries about her family)

  • at the moment she and her family need a break
  • for the past two years she has been shooting a totally different kind of documentary. She has been following the director of Wahaha Honpo (ワハハ本舗) around for two years shooting footage of him. This means that for two years she has been surrounded by Japanese comedians – a welcome change of pace for her.
  • she is planning on writing scripts for fiction films
  • she has written an essay in Japanese about her experiences in North Korea that she couldn’t show in video. She’s not sure if she could publish it in English.
Other DVDs produced by Wahaha Honpo:

Daikon no Hanamichi - Wahaha Honpo / Theatrical Play (WAHAHA Honpo)
Theatrical Play (WAHAHA Honpo)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010