Imagined Space of North Korea

Curator's Note

The Korean peninsula is divided by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which, despite its name, is the one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. It is also the last Cold War territory marked by an ideological and physical boundary since the Korean War (1950-1953). Since the war, North Korea has become a forbidden space, and thus Northern migrants to the South have experienced the status of exile with no accessibility to their homeland. Because of territorial and ideological isolation, the space of North Korea has been fictionalized in numerous Korean and transnational films spanning genres such as action, comedy, satire, melodrama, and so on. However, if the medium is documentary genre, how does documentary film represent the space in which the indexical visual sign is absent?

My Father’s Emails (2012) demonstrates how the impossibility of the visual signification of space challenges the realm of realist aesthetic in documentary and motivates performative representation of time and space. My Father’s Emails is an autobiographical documentary that reconstructs the memories and history of the filmmaker Hong Jae-hee’s father after his death. The father migrated as a child to South Korea from the North during the Korean War in the 1950’s and died before ever being able to return home. In this documentary film, the representation of the father’ home has a double impediment, the absence of the character (subject) and the restricted space of home (North Korea). As a solution to the twofold obstacles of representation, My Father’s Emails constructs an imagined cinematic space where the dream and reality, the past and future are entangled.

This entanglement is highlighted in the ending scene of the film. The filmmaker herself appears with an actor performing the role of her father, and they are on an imagined train ride to North Korea. The scene is not set in any explicit historical time, neither solely in the future of a unified Korea nor in the daydream of the present, because narrations from different temporalities are intermixed. The train is a ritualistic space where nostalgia for the past is being fulfilled in the futuristic time beyond death, which engenders a reenactment of an event that never happened because of the closed border, and will never happen because of her father’s death. The labyrinth of multiple temporalities indicates that documentary does not necessarily equate with objectivity, but can exist in the unconsciousness and performative realm.

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