While the last thing you’d probably associate with the Spanish Film Festival, currently being held in Sydney, is to see a documentary about Korea, Argentinian director Jose Luis Garcia provided us with that very thing with a screening of his 2012 documentary ‘The Girl from the South’.
The circumstances which led to the making of the documentary make it compelling even before a single frame has been witnessed. A brief look at any synopsis of the piece explains that back in 1989, Garcia attended the World Youth and Students Festival in place of his brother, a journey which had political undertones and was sponsored by the USSR, which happened to include a ten night stay in Pyongyang. While Garcia himself had limited interest in the political purpose of the trip, as a budding film-maker he was more than happy to have the opportunity to be using a borrowed VHS video camera to capture the event on film.
During his stay there though, a South Korean peace activist by the name of Lim Su-kyung soon starts capturing the attention of not just the students attending the festival, but the whole of the Korean peninsula. From small press conferences in which she speaks about the need for reunification, she is soon speaking at rallies in front of hundreds if not thousands across North Korea. But more than any of this, her pledge to walk back to Seoul, which would involve crossing the DMZ, is what makes headline news, particularly with the very real danger that she would be shot on sight as soon as the steps across the demarcation line.
The events transpire, and now more than twenty years later, Garcia explains that through all of the changes which have unfolded in his own life, including divorce and the birth of his son, he could never get the question out of his mind of what happened to Su-kyung, who was affectionately named ‘The Flower of Reunification’. So, through convincing his friend Alejandro Kim, a Korean who has lived in Argentina since he was eight, to act as a translator for him, Garcia sets about tracking down Su-kyung in the hope of securing an interview with her to discuss what happened, and all that has happened in-between, since those distant memories of Pyongyang in 1989.
The documentary is essentially split into thirds, with the first consisting exclusively of Garcia’s footage of the festival and the various tours and happenings that came along with it. The footage has a surreal quality to it, looking almost like a frat party at times complete with visits to nightclubs and dancing in the streets. It captures Pyongyang at a unique period of time, the Tiananmen Square massacre had took place just three weeks before, and only four months later the Berlin Wall would fall, leading to the eventual collapse of the USSR and North Korea’s descent into famine during the 1990s. However in the footage on display, everyone is blissfully unaware of the hardships to come, capturing a city which looks very much to be economically stable and livable.
Su-kyung herself, captured speaking at various events, makes a bright and radiant figure, expressing the need for the US army to leave Korea forever and allow the process of reunification to begin. Garcia captures her on film one last time before he would never see her again, the day before she was due to cross over into South Korea, and from there we skip forward to present day. His research reveals a troubled history, she was arrested as soon as she crossed back over into the South, somewhere along the way she got married and divorced, and she also suffered the death of her eight year old son. Nevertheless, once he manages to make contact with her via e-mail, she seems friendly and open to him coming to Seoul to meet.
It’s once he gets there that the documentary really displays its beauty, revealing the characters of both Garcia & Su-kyung through various spoken and un-spoken moments. In truth, Su-kyung didn’t actually expect them to come, and often comes across as abrasive and even rude at times when being followed by Garcia’s camera, while the planned interview seems impossible to pin down. Su-kyung’s surprise at Garcia and Alejandro’s arrival is only matched by Garcia’s own somewhat naïve attitude to how the meeting would go, as he appears to have had the firm belief he would be meeting the same passionate activist from twenty years ago, just an older version.
Things play out in a way which finds the camera unflinchingly capturing several awkward moments. When an interview is attempted, half of the time is spent bickering about what language they should speak in, followed by Su-kyung complaining that Garcia likes to sit too close to her, with poor Alejandro stuck in the middle of the extended silences looking lost and confused. The situation isn’t helped when Su-kyung asks Garcia directly what it is that he wants, and he sits there, unable to summon an answer to her question.
Failing to get straight answers from Su-kyung, Garcia and Alejandro speak to various acquaintances and friends of hers to try and get some bigger picture on the impact she had on the mindset of Korea, and the answers they find aren’t always what you’d expect. Eventually, a traffic accident results in both Garcia and Alejandro heading back home to Argentina, their goal largely unachieved and perhaps leaving with more questions than answers. It’s while they’re back in Argentina that news comes through of Su-kyung coming to visit them, which brings us to the final third of the piece, and the possibility of Garcia finally getting his interview after all.
‘The Girl from the South’ ends up being as much about Garcia’s misguided expectations as it does about Su-kyung’s unwillingness to talk about the past, and while the documentary has a distinctly unpolished feel, this only adds to its realism and feeling of being in the moment with the subjects on screen. For any fans of documentary film-making or Korea in general, ‘The Girl from the South’ comes strongly recommended.