CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 40. . . .June 18, 2010
Two years ago, my wife and I, along with our daughter, went to see our son who was teaching in South Korea. At that point, he had been away for seven months, and we were eager to see him. Together, we went to Japan where my wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary with our children in Kyoto. It was a wonderful time, and the idea of this family celebration not being possible never crossed our minds.
Tiger Spirit looks at the division of Korea into North and South Korea and shows how the separation of the country also meant the separation of families. We were able to cross the world to be reunited as a family. For many Koreans, the idea of a family reunion or vacation is a dream or most likely an impossibility. This is certainly not the fault of distance.
Film-maker Min Sook Lee came to Canada from South Korea when she was three. Her parents ran a corner store and worked long hours. There was no time to talk about life in Korea. What she learned about the country came from watching M*A*S*H on television. When Lee was 12, her mother died and her father “seemed so weak and alone.” She felt like “a fallen piece of a broken Korea" and wondered, “Can it ever be put back together?”
So, six months pregnant, Lee decided to go back to South Korea and seek out the Korean tiger. No one has seen one for years. Koreans once worshiped the tiger as a mountain god. Under the Japanese occupation, the Korean resistance was fed by the spirit of the tiger. For this reason, all tigers were “destroyed to kill the Korean spirit.” Lee links up with Tiger Lim, a tiger hunter who is convinced that there are tigers still. So determined is he to find one, he has made this his occupation and obsession. He is not concerned about making money. He “wants to find the tiger, so he can find the spirit.”
Lee goes to the border area and sees the North Korean soldiers for the first time. She is taken by their “gaunt appearance, their ill-fitting and outdated uniforms.” She learns of the government’s programme of supervised family reunions. Tens of thousands of family members would love to be able to reconnect. Selection is to be done by lottery, and so not all will be successful.
Lee meets with a number of people who await the result of the lottery. One woman is eager to see her sister’s children. She knows their names and practices them almost as a litany and gets frustrated when she does not get all the names. Clearly she has been doing this for a long time. When she was separated from her family, she thought the unification would happen within the year. Now, 50 years later, she only has their names and is not sure who is still alive. She remembers the escape and how crying babies were silenced or left behind for fear that they would alert the Russian soldiers. Now, all she wants is to see her family before she dies.
A father is hoping to be reunited with his son who was six the last time he saw him. He is told that his son is indeed alive, so he, too, longs to be with him again. He wants the son to know that he has not been forgotten and wonders if the son remembers him. He acknowledges that he would not be able to recognize his son if they happened to pass each other. His goodbye was never supposed to last forever.
Anyone in North Korea who is caught trying to defect is sent to a concentration camp as are three generations of that person’s family. Those who make it to South Korea find that they are not at all welcomed. They have to attend a training school to learn about capitalism. Following that, they find they face prejudice from those in the South. They, too, are isolated and unable to see their families.
Lee states that Tiger Lim’s stories start to sound like the old folk stories. Now, “Korea is being defined by economics not stories.” After North Korea tested a missile and the South held demonstrations, all visits were cancelled. Lee decided to return to Toronto to deliver her baby.
Now a mother, Lee discovers the power of family and goes back to Korea for the next round of family reunions. Tiger Lim holds a silent vigil outside the Japanese embassy. The father who wanted to see his son finds out that he was not alive after all. His sister is alive, but he does not wish to see her. He is not sure if his wife is still alive, but he figures that, after all this time, she is probably remarried. He learns of his son’s death on camera. This scene is difficult to witness as his dream is destroyed as we watch.
The woman who kept track of her niece and nephews’ names learns that they are all dead. Only two cousins are still alive. Reuniting with her family kept her alive, and now they are all gone. The defector is able to send money home to North Korea but knows that there will be no reunion ever.
Lee is allowed to cross the border to a factory run by South Korean capital and technology but using a North Korean workforce. Young women are paid 26 cents an hour which is taken by the government. Materials are marked with a “Made in Korea” label.
Lee asks, “If there is reunification, on whose terms will it be?”
One family is able to reunite. The man (80) remembers his younger brother (78) as having freckles. When they meet, he realizes his younger brother “is an old man, like me.” The families are allowed three meetings, but only one is private. The younger brother is experiencing dementia, but the brothers’ visit is wonderful all the same. This should be a happy part in the film, but when it comes time to say goodbye, it will probably be forever. The heart-breaking sobs are clearly heard as the younger brother’s bus pulls away.
Tiger Spirit is a disturbing film. For Lee, she is trying to piece her life together and seems to be happy in her new role as mother, but for those who have been separated by politics, there is no comfort. Even if the two Koreas are reunited, Lee asks, “What kind of division will remain?”
Tiger Spirit is an excellent film and has great value in any course dealing with World Politics, Geography, or Social Justice. There is applicability in a Family Studies course as well.
As our son plans to return to South Korea for another two years, I can’t help but feel a little guilty at how easy it will be for us to go see him should we decide to do so.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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