Roxy Rezvany’s short film Little Pyongyang tells the story of Joong-wha Choi a North Korean defector now living in the South London suburb of New Malden. Joong-wha’s subtle and stylised portrait sheds light on a notoriously secretive refugee community, revealing a shared plight of North Koreans searching for new life. In its sensitive portrayal of refugee experience on our own doorstep Little Pyongyang emerges as the antidote for Western visions of North Korea that sensationalise the regime and dehumanise its citizens. Rezvany instead chooses to tell less familiar North Korean tale, one of childhood, family, loss, and home.
Rezvany’s desire to reinvent a North Korean narrative is matched by her innovative take on interview form. Through stylised set design Rezvany allows space in Little Pyongyang to act as an essential storytelling tool. Rezvany situates Joong-wha’s testimony within a curiously pink walled room. Its 1980’s furniture and rigid colour scheme combine to create a scene reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s distinct visual style. From the rooms centre, seated on a comfortable chair Joong-wha speaks directly to camera, his aqua marine shirt completing the colourful aesthetic.
Joong-wha sighs, closes his eyes for a moment and murmurs ‘well, that’s a baffling question.’ The question that provokes Joong-wha’s contemplative answer is, perhaps, surprisingly commonplace-‘where is your home?’ But it is in this exchange that Little Pyongyang discloses its thematic heart. In Little Pyongyang Rezvany asks us to question the complex and myriad meanings of ‘home’, seeking to expose how they are formed and reformed as ‘home’ collides with the realities of life as a refugee.
It is fitting then, that we find Joong-wha in this strange quasi-domestic space. As we explore in interview Joong-wha’s complicated relationship to his homeland, Rezvany encourages the viewer to understand the pink room as its spatial manifestation. As a home now only accessible in memory, the pink room appears suitably frozen in time, recognisably domestic and yet abstract. As Joong-wha speaks the pink room’s furnishings are revealed as the relics of a life left behind. These objects anchor Joong-wha’s testimony and ensure their full emotional impact is felt without the need for dramatisation. Memorably, as Joong-wha describes the food shortages that caused his brother’s death the camera remains fixed on a single bowl of rice illuminated under a spotlight. Animated by Joong-wha’s memory this formerly familiar object is transformed into a haunting symbol of life and death. Rezvany’s creation of such visual language is testament to her deeply compassionate approach to storytelling. In Little Pyongyang Joong-wha appears in control of his own narrative as the meanings of his memories remain authentically ambiguous and are guided only by the symbols that accompany them.
Little Pyongyang’s exploration of home is equally compelling when we venture beyond the pink room into New Malden. Through Joong-wha we glimpse life amongst the largest community of North Korean’s outside of South Korea in the world-a fact that has earned the suburb the nickname ‘Little Pyongyang.’ As a human rights activist and prominent member of the community, Joong-wha is well positioned to provide real insight into the practical challenges facing the community. But far more difficult to overcome than access to housing or language, we learn, are the profound psychological challenges that accompany forced dislocation from your homeland. In its articulation of these struggles Little Pyongyang is masterful. Joong-wha’s testimony captures the daily reckoning with trauma, guilt and fear that are so common to refugee experience without positioning the viewer as a voyeur to suffering. But Joong-wha’s is not a despairing tale. Whilst it is defined by a longing for connection with his homeland, it bares witness to a community actively forging a new legacy for their children.
Speaking on Little Pyongyang Rezvany recalls her desire to ‘make a film that would genuinely bring something new to the table, and that would also contribute to the North Korean community for future generations too.’ I find with this tender and deeply human film she has done just that.
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