I was looking forward to seeing two films in particular at the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival this past weekend. I already reviewed Agrarian Utopia, directed by Uruphong Raksasad of Thailand. The second represented my first film from North Korea, A Schoolgirl’s Diary, directed by Jang In-hak.
The film is about two sisters having a hard time with the fact their hard-working professor father sometimes doesn’t come home for years at a time. He misses all the girls’ important events and rarely sees his wife who constantly translates books and papers for her struggling husband and sends them off to the research centre where he works. People in the town and at school talk about him as if he will never amount to anything. The elder sister is embarrassed and gets to the point that she “erases him from my mind.”
Leading up to this scene, which is near the end of the film, are propaganda-like set pieces of happy families, uncles, neighbours and townsfolk who meet all obstacles with a smile, a platitude and “prayer” for the “Dear General” or "Dear Leader” who knows what’s best in all circumstances.
Elder daughter (Su-Reyon, played by Pak Mi-hyang) says some pretty horrible things and disrespects her sister (Su-ok, rising soccer star) her mom, her father and her friends. She disobeys her father’s wishes that she become a scientist. Of course, with the full weight of political and cultural pressure on media in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, she (and the good cadres watching this film in the country’s cinemas) learns her lesson.
Yet there are some real truths throughout the film and some insight to be gained from watching a rare film to escape North Korea. The ending has some real drama. But of course, we discover her parents and the nation know what they’re doing and she should learn from that very valuable lesson.
Actress Pak Mi-hyang demonstrates a wide range of emotional weight and colour and was particularly convincing as the selfish school girl. The rest of the cast was very good; you just had to edit out the flouncy window dressing that comes with propaganda. It was like watching someone painting over rust at times.
A Schoolgirl’s Diary is well worth seeing for the upcoming talent and the view behind the 38th parallel.
Saw two other films: Malaysian and Indonesian, as well as a Korean-Canadian and another Canadian short. More on those later.