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CAAMFest 2013 review: “Memory of Forgotten War,” which has its world premiere Monday, traces the enduring impact of the Korean War on Koreans and Korean-Americans

Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsay Liem’s “Memory of Forgotten War” (2013), which has its world premiere Monday at CAAMFest 2013, is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean civilians who survived the Korean War and later immigrated to the U.S. Photo: courtesy Mu Films

Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsay Liem’s “Memory of Forgotten War” (2013), which has its world premiere Monday at CAAMFest 2013, is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean civilians who survived the Korean War and later immigrated to the U.S. Photo: courtesy Mu Films

The Korean War (1950-1953) reeked devastation, pitting the United States, South Korea, and 16 other countries against North Korea and China. A mere three years of fighting left 3 million civilians dead, a decimated Korean peninsula, and over a half century of family separation for 10 million Koreans, including Korean Americans.  Unknown or now forgotten by most Americans, the impact of this war is far from forgotten for Koreans. A new documentary by award-winning Berkeley filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem and Boston College professor emeritus, Ramsay Liem, paints a meditative and highly personal portrait of the Korean War through the stories of four, now edlerly, Korean civilians who were there–Suntae Chun, Hee Bok Kim, Minyong Lee, and Kee Park.

 “Memory of Forgotten War” has its world premiere Monday evening, March 18, at 6:30 p.m., at San Francisco’s Kabuki Cinemas as part of CAAMFest 2013 and is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean survivors who later immigrated to the U.S.  Immediately following the film, the filmmakers will have a conversation with audience about issues stemming from the now 60 year-old Korean War, for which no formal peace accord was ever struck.   The Korean drumming group, Jamaesori (Pronunciation: “JAH-mae-soh-rlee”), will also perform after the screening. Jamaesori is a Bay Area collective of women of Korean descent who use traditional Korean drumming to support social justice movements.  Their Pilbong style of Pungmul drumming is a centuries old participatory folk art tradition and a rare treat.

Deann Borshay Liem, who directed the award-winning adoption documentaries “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” (2010), and First Person Plural (2000), both of which appeared on PBS’ acclaimed POV (Point of View) television program, has a remarkable gift for weaving together personal stories to create a living tapestry of collective history.  A CAAMFest favorite, all of her recent films have screened there and sold-out, and she often stays to chat with enthusiastic audience members long after the Q&A officially closes, connecting with them over shared issues.  Ten years ago, she served as CAAM’s Executive Director, where she supervised the development, distribution and broadcast of new films for public television and worked with Congress to support minority representation in public media.   Her collaboration with her brother-in-law, Ramsay Liem, who organized the 2005 traveling exhibition, “Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the Forgotten War,” builds on the oral histories of Korean American survivors he collected over a three-year period for that project which included oral history excerpts, original artwork, interactive installations, video art and historical photographs from the Korean War.  When Borshay Liem and Professor Liem decided to make a documentary to reach audiences that the exhibition could not, they selected Chun, Kim, Lee, and Park  out of the more than dozen Korean American voices from the exhibition.   Chun, Lee, and Park had initially participated in Still Present Pasts…, while Kim, 91, lovingly known as “Grandma Kim,” and a forceful community activist, who appeared on the April 2003 cover of KoreAm for her work with the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles, attended Still Present Pasts…  in Los Angeles and was grandmothered into the project.

With the number of living eyewitnesses to the War dwindling, the value of personal testimony has been growing.  The experiences shared by the film participants, all of whom are quite elderly but still very articulate, embrace the full circle of the war and they speak of harrowing events, some for the first time publicly, as if they happened yesterday.  Their voices, sometimes broken by tears, laughter or ponderous silence, tell of decisions they made impulsively, instinctively which saved their own lives and each story is a study in courage, self-preservation, grace and incalculable loss. Most touching are the precious mementos they managed to keep with them, crinkled family photos, which document the days that time literally stopped for them.  Suntae Chun lived in Kaesong, right near the 38th parallel border, and tells how 27 members of his swimming team and the entire school went to the Ongmyon Reservoir for a picnic and to swim.   He holds up a now 60 year-old photo showing the team of teenagers in their swim trunks. “Next morning,” he calmly says, “big war broke out.”  

Kee Park, who came from a wealthy land-owning family, remembers the growing bitterness directed at her father and the land’s repatriation and later going with her mother to various prison camps and searching through corpses for her missing father.  She later shares how her mother essentially brokered their family’s freedom to the South by bribing border guards with silver spoons and chili powder.

Minyong Lee tells how his brother ideologically identified with the communism of the North and left Seoul, moving North, and never returned.  Later, his other siblings followed.  With the closure of the border, those siblings were lost to Lee who felt a part of him “was just gone.”  Lee then later recreated his life and lived a lie.  He became the only son, omitting that he had siblings on all official documents and never mentioning his lost family members in North Korea  to friends.  While his university exam scores were very high, he knew that he would never fulfill his dream of becoming a diplomat because he, like others who had family in the North, was a liability to his country.

Hee Bok Kim, born in  Pyongyang, recalls vividly the day they were told to evacuate.  She would not leave her basement because her children had the measles.  Later, her odyssey darkened as she and her family were forced to live out of a desk in an abandoned office building.     

“Memory of Forgotten War” (2013), which has its world premiere Monday at CAAMFest 2013, is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean civilians who survived the Korean War and later immigrated to the U.S. Photo: courtesy Mu Films

“Memory of Forgotten War” (2013), which has its world premiere Monday at CAAMFest 2013, is the first documentary to tell of the experiences of Korean civilians who survived the Korean War and later immigrated to the U.S. Here, Minyong Lee points to photo of his brother who moved to North Korea and never came back. Photo: courtesy Mu Films

Just 37 minutes in length, “Memory of Forgotten War,” astutely takes these emotional eyewitness accounts and blends them with thoughtful analysis and interpretation of events by Korean War historians Bruce Cumings and Ji-Yeon Yuh that situate these stories in a broader historical context.  The Liems use riveting black and white newsreels, U.S. military footage, archival photographs, propaganda posters, and newspaper articles, to frame the complex political, social and historical forces that set this war in motion and its messy, devastating aftermath.   Most aspects of the war are covered—its outbreak and the day-to-day struggle for survival through relentless U.S. bombing campaigns; the loss of family members at the hands of combatants on both sides; finding shelter in cardboard hovels; the arbitrary separation of families across the 38th parallel; the aftermath of a devastated and ideology-driven Korean peninsula with Kim Il Sung a puppet of Stalin in the North and the American-supported and educated Syngman Rhee as South Korea’s first President; immigration to the U.S. and life as war survivors in the U.S.  

The film culminates as each survivor reunites with relatives in North Korea, conveying beyond words the meaning of four decades of family loss.  With so much time, many relatives who lived in bleak and deprived circumstances in the North, have died and it is the next generation that these survivors meet.  As Ms. Liem knows well from her own adoption journey, which took her to Korea in search of her birthmother, there is no substitute for the passage of lost time.  The gift of a film like this is that serves as a powerful reminder that this war did happen and its tangled mess can be measured in very palpable terms and there are precious stories waiting to be shared among various generations of Korean and Korean-Americans.   Stay-tuned to ARThound for an interview with the Liems about what into making this exceptional documentary.

Details: CAAMfest 2013 runs March 14-24, 2013 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco and Berkeley.  Regular screenings are $12 and special screenings and programs are more.  Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $60.   Click here to see full schedule and to purchase tickets online.  Advance ticket purchase is recommended as films frequently sell out.

CAAMFest 2013’s Focus on Korea:

Utilizing Memory of Forgotten War as a launching point, “Beyond Boundaries” is a special festival program exploring the societal repercussions and cinematic incarnations of the Korean War.  In addition to  Memory of Forgotten War, CAAMFest 2013 presents 3 films:

Muel O's "Jiseul" (2013) tells the story of 120 Korean villagers who hid in a cave for 60 days from soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders.  Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Muel O’s “Jiseul” (2013) tells the story of 120 Korean villagers who hid in a cave for 60 days from soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders. Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Jiseul: Set during the 1948 Jeju Massacre, Jiseul tells the fictional story of some 120 villagers who hid in a cave for sixty days from soldiers who were under shoot-to-kill orders. They suffer from severe cold and hunger but retain their sanity by making jokes and holding on to the hope that their wait is almost over. Eventually their endurance wanes, and fear begins to test the group’s mettle.

The absurdity-of-war theme has been explored in many films, but rarely in such exquisite detail as in this offering from writer/director Muel O.  Striking black-and-white cinematography captures the texture of the region as well as the humanity of its inhabitants. The film doesn’t condemn anyone but rather focuses on the heart of the story—real people living in fear. Powerful and tender, Jiseul is at certain times hard to watch because of the content and at others extremely engaging because of the authentic human emotion. O has crafted a potent and poetic requiem for a people and a place close to his heart. (capsule review—Sundance Film Festival) (Screens March, 19, 2013, 8:30 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Having escaped North Korea, after five years of living incognito, Kim Young-soon attempts to smuggle her dying sister of out North Korea in the documentary “Seeking Haven.”   Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Having escaped North Korea, after five years of living incognito, Kim Young-soon attempts to smuggle her dying sister of out North Korea in the documentary “Seeking Haven.” Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Seeking Haven:  “If I hadn’t left home, I might’ve been hungry, but at least I could’ve been with my family.” -Young-soon Kim

Over 20,000 North Koreans have crossed the border to China in search of freedom. Most of them live in hiding, in fear of being deported back to North Korea and politically persecuted. Director Hein S. Seok, a recipient of one of only five film-production grants given by CAAM’s 2010 Media Fund Program, reveals their often overlooked stories in this intimate, daring tale of struggle, heartbreak and survival.

 In 2002, Kim Young-soon, desperate for food, escaped North Korea to China. After five years of living in an underground haven, Young-soon embarked on a dangerous eight-day trek across three borders in an effort to reach South Korea. Seeking Haven documents her journey years later, in the present day, when she returns to China in an attempt to smuggle her sister out of the country she once called home. (capsule review—Lin Kung, CAAMFest) (Screens March, 18, 2013, 8:50 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Over 20,000 North Koreans have crossed the border to China in search of freedom. Most of them live in hiding, in fear of being deported back to North Korea and politically persecuted. Director Hein S. Seok, a recipient of one of only five film-production grants given by CAAM’s 2010 Media Fund Program, reveals their often overlooked stories in this intimate, daring tale of struggle, heartbreak and survival.

In 2002, Kim Young-soon, desperate for food, escaped North Korea to China. After five years of living in an underground haven, Young-soon embarked on a dangerous eight-day trek across three borders in an effort to reach South Korea. Seeking Haven documents her journey years later, in the present day, when she returns to China in an attempt to smuggle her sister out of the country she once called home. (capsule review—Lin Kung, CAAMFest) (Screens March, 18, 2013, 8:50 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Six years in the making, “ComradeKim Goes Flying” is the first fiction feature in over 30 years to be filmed inside North Korea and co-produced by Western Filmmakers. Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Six years in the making, “ComradeKim Goes Flying” is the first fiction feature in over 30 years to be filmed inside North Korea and co-produced by Western Filmmakers. Photo: courtesy CAAMFest

Comrade Kim Goes Flying:  As a young girl growing up in the North Korean countryside, Kim Yong Mi dreamt of sprouting wings and soaring through the skies like the doves that flew above. Years later, the now-adult Comrade Kim spends her days cheerfully laboring as a coal miner and living with her father and grandmother in their idyllic industrial village. But when an opportunity arises to go to Pyongyang, Comrade Kim eagerly sets off for the capital city. There, a chance meeting with members of the Pyongyang Circus—including the cavalier and handsome Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Guk)—ignites Kim’s desire to pursue her childhood love of acrobatics. Armed with plenty of pluck, charm, and working-class resilience, Comrade Kim launches a surprising journey toward making her childhood dream come true.

An international collaboration six years in the making, Comrade Kim Goes Flying is the first fiction feature in over thirty years to be filmed inside North Korea and co-produced by Western filmmakers.  Its cast brings together non-actors (the leads are real-life professional circus acrobats) with several of the most prominent names in North Korean cinema. Shot in lush, vibrant colors, and with an emphasis on self-destiny that departs from the usual communal themes of North Korean film, this romantic comedy proves as intriguing as it is memorable. (capsule review—CAAMFest) (Screens March, 23, 2013, 8:45 p.m. at Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley and March 24, 2013, at 4 p.m. at Great Star Theatre.)

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March 17, 2013 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Adoption—in “Wo Ai Ni Mommy,” a Jewish family in Long Island gets a new member from China and everyone has to adapt

8 year old Sui Yong (3rd from left), a Chinese orphan meets with her foster family for the last time before she is adopted by the Sadowsky family of Long Island in Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Wo Ai Ni Mommy." Photo CAAM

How do you adapt to a brand new family member from a different culture?  Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s first feature film film “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”  (“I Love You Mommy”) breaks important ground as she travels to Guangzhou, China with adoptive mother Donna Sadowsky of Long, Island, New York, to meet her 8 year-old daughter, orphan Sui Yong (“Faith”) for the first time.  

Wang-Breal acts as a fly-on-the wall documentarian, capturing the moment by moment complexities of forging a loving and healthy bond with an older child from another culture.  While over 70,000 children have been adopted from China into the U.S. since 1992 and everyone’s experience is different, this story is unique.  It is told in real time and captures the child’s perspective, often in her own voice.  Most adoption documentaries are told from the perspective of the adult adoptee looking back in time or the adoptive parents’ experience or even the relinquishing birthmother’s point of view.  This one is straight from the psyche of an 8-year-old who was abandoned as a 2-year-old and has been living at the orphanage and in foster care.  She has never seen a Caucasian before but has been told by a kindly Chinese social worker named Leila that she is going to have a good life in a place called America. 

As the film unfolds, nothing is held back.  We first meet the Sadowsky family in Long Island.  Jeff and Donna have two teenage sons and a 3-year-old Chinese daughter, Dara, who was adopted at age 14 months.  The decision to adopt another child was agreed upon by all family members and everyone’s view seems to have been respected.  The action then moves to China with Donna in her hotel room, a few hours before she is going to meet her new daughter, Sui Yong.   Her elderly father has made the journey with her.  Her husband Jeff made the difficult decision to stay at home and care for the rest of their children so that Donna could devote her full attention to Faith.  Donna is anxiously preparing stacks of hundred dollar bills and organizing gifts for the orphanage. Sui Yong’s care for 6 years has been subsidized by the Chinese government and Donna is paying $3,000,  a pittance compared to costs in the US. 

At the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Office, the first meeting between mother and daughter unfolds in the chaos of what appears to be a dozen similar introductions taking place all at once.   The tension is palpable.  A social worker carefully handles the introduction and Sui Yong is asked what she thinks of the name “Faith.”  She is then told that she will now be called Faith and she should call Donna “Mommy.”   She is told many times that Donna loves her and that she will come to love her Mommy too.   As Donna gives her daughter her first hug and pulls her into her arms, Faith is stoic, shell-shocked.  When given the chance to ask Donna questions, she asks only one—does the Sadowsky family eat fish.  To which Donna answers yes, “We like fish.”   A smile emerges.

What follows is a linear narrative—tracking moments of happiness, ambivalence, sheer fright and acting out, an unexpected meeting with Faith’s Chinese foster family, traveling back to Long Island where Faith meets the rest of her new family, and her subsequent struggles to integrate into family life in America.   Language, food, habits—everything Faith has known as young Chinese girl vanish as she struggles to adapt to boisterous Jewish family life.  Donna is a no-nonsense mom and establishes boundaries and expectations right away–Faith must learn English to communicate and she needs to learn to share what’s going on inside so that her family can understand her needs.  Dad Jeff is a very loving father who is keenly aware of the impact of his smallest gestures of affection or discipline and is very careful to treat all his children equally and with sensitivity.  

Over the course of 17 months, we gradually witness Faith’s transformation into a lively, outspoken American child.  Rapid immersion has had a remarkable impact– there is a noticeable set of cultural gains and losses and actual shifts in her personality and identity.  She moves differently, has different expressions and attitudes and now identifies herself as American.  Sadly, she has nearly forgotten her native Cantonese language but wants desperately to communicate by Skype with her beloved foster sister in China.   Of particular interest is the rare footage of adoptive mother Donna meeting Faith’s Chinese foster mother and family in China.  (In China, the law prohibits foster parents from adopting.)  We are poignantly aware throughout the film that this foster family nurtured Faith for several years in China.  This loving bond, her most significant source of attachment and love after her birthmother abandoned her, has been a healing anchor for Faith.  The Sadowskys recognize that and welcome the foster family into their lives as well.

In all, we marvel at the courage of the Sadowsky family to allow a camera to roll uncensored through this intimate and often raw experience.  Some very difficult moments are captured and this is actually what gives this film its real force.  When Faith does not get her way, she pitches a fit and says she wants to leave and return to China.  When she struggles with carrying her books due to her impairment, she doesn’t ask for help and is scolded when they drop to the ground.  At one point she blurts out to Donna “You are a white person and I am Chinese.”  Adoptive mom Donna Sadowsky has a strong parenting style.  She doesn’t always achieve immediate success but she is consistent, respectful and always listens to her children.   We never doubt her love for Faith.  As the film progresses, we witness the entire family trying to strengthen their bond with Faith and to protect her.  In all, what emerges is a very realistic account of the hard work, self awareness and love it takes to pull adoption off on a daily basis.  This is a deeply moving and intelligent film that probes the very heart of what family means while exploring issues of identity, cultural assimilation and bonding.  

 “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” is part of the year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 11-21, 2010, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)San Francisco.  It has also been selected for the prestigious PBS award-winning series Point of View 

Screens— SUN 3.14 (3:30 PM, Kabuki, San Francisco), WED 3.17 (7:00 PM, Kabuki San Francisco).

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment