[KS] KSR 1999-05:_A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans_, by

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Nov 2 13:04:49 EST 1999

_A Forgotten People:  The Sakhalin Koreans_, by Dai-Sil Kim
Gibson.  1995.  Distributed by National Asian American Telecommunications
Association (NAATA), 346 Ninth St., 2nd Fl., San Francisco, CA 94103.  16mm
Film, 1/2" Video, Color.  59 min.  Sale:  $265.  Video Rental: $75.  Film
Rental:  $150.

Reviewed by Stephen Epstein
Victoria University of Wellington

[This review first appeared in Western Folklore, 57 (1998):77-79]

       During the final years of Korea's occupation by Japan, over 40,000
Koreans were sent -- many forcibly conscripted -- to work as laborers on
southern Sakhalin Island, then a Japanese territory.  When World War II
came to an end, however, and all Sakhalin fell under Soviet rule, political
circumstances prevented these displaced unfortunates from returning to
their homeland, and their plight has since been largely ignored by the
outside world.  _A Forgotten People:  The Sakhalin Koreans_, a video
written, directed and produced by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, devotes itself to
allowing their moving story to be heard.

       The opening sequence pans slowly over the attractive forested
hillsides of Sakhalin, but the beauty of the land belies the horror of the
stories recounted.  As a plaintive soundtrack of classical Korean music
sets a melancholy mood, we encounter a litany of harrowing tales:
interviewees describe how they were snatched from their families as young
men and sent to a distant land to further the imperial Japanese war effort.
Their accounts tell of frequent beatings and appalling living conditions,
marked by a meager diet, inadequate shelter, and intense cold; former mine
laborers detail the dangers of their work and the attendant possibilities
of disease, disfigurement, and death.  The video captures the recurrent use
of animal similes in the interviewees' self-presentation (e.g. "the
Japanese worked us like horses and  oxen," "we were like pigs in one
room"), and thus effectively evokes the dehumanization they experienced:
those sent to Sakhalin became, quite literally, beasts of burden.  But the
editorial presentation suggests an even more fundamental effacement of
their identities:  "we've become nameless souls," sighs one elderly
gentleman.  The title
itself strikes a keynote which recurs several times:  the Koreans of
Sakhalin see themselves as exiled from their homes and then abandoned by
the world.  The voiceover narrative concurs, noting upon more than one
occasion that "no one remembered these people."

       The video highlights particularly an everpresent longing for the
land left behind.  Again and again we meet people struggling with the
burden of their memories:  one miner's daughter describes nostalgically how
she came from a "village with a beautiful river and mountains," from which
she was uprooted, and traveled with her family to a "cold, cold country."
For many, Korea becomes an idealized motherland of the distant past seen in
contrast to the frozen land of their more recent lives.  Although the
notion of han (often paraphrased as "unrequited resentment or sorrow"), so
central to Korean popular discourse, is never invoked directly in the
production, both the self-presentation of the interviewees and the
narrative viewpoint are thoroughly informed by this concept.  One Sakhalin
resident relates a friend's deathbed words, which veritably burst with han:
"if you ever go back to Korea, tell everyone our story, the story we kept
in our chests."  In most cases the self is presented first and foremost as
an ethnic subject, and those interviewed often become, above all, exiled
Koreans.  The video fosters the national self-identification by calling
forth images of severed families, and thus having recourse to another
essential trope of Korean popular thought, that of a people divided, who
have undergone the agony of families torn asunder.  The audience is
implicitly reminded that the separations brought about by forced
conscriptions to Sakhalin were soon to be replicated on a vastly larger
scale by the partition of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent war
between north and south.

       A dark shadow cast by Japan and its responsibility for the
continuing predicament of the Koreans of Sakhalin looms over the video.
The overwhelming anger towards the former colonizer felt by the
interviewees some fifty years after liberation is more than palpable, and
the narration itself appears to endorse the view that blame for the ongoing
sadness of these people lies with the Japanese.  Although Japan's forcible
conscription of "comfort women" has begun to command international
attention, the plight of the Sakhalin Koreans continues to go largely
unnoticed, and the video can be seen as advocating that the Japanese should
offer compensation for their wartime misdeeds.

       One area given short shrift by the piece, however, is the current
situation of Koreans in Sakhalin and their relationship with ethnic
Russians.  Not until well into the video does one see a Russian face, and
at no point are conversations between Koreans and Russians depicted.  One
speaker tells of the "racial discrimination" experienced by the Koreans of
Sakhalin, but such discrimination is barely discussed and the dominant
portrayal of the contemporary situation as an exile of continuous
mistreatment does not fully jibe either with the occasional images of
Koreans and Russians with arms around one another or other suggestions of
camaraderie and references to intermarriage.  In one of the few interviews
that tackles these issues head on, a thoughtful young tae kwon do
instructor, flanked by two Russian friends, notes that "we consider Russia
to be our motherland.  Our parents want us to go [to Korea], but we don't."
Nonetheless, towards the end of the work we find another member of the
younger generation saying "I would like to leave," and the climactic
position seems to privilege his voice over the earlier interview.  Numerous
questions are raised here but given only cursory treatment.

       The video, mournful and elegiac, is occasionally slow-moving and
might not play well in the classroom.  Additionally, those looking for a
well-rounded account of the lives of the Sakhalin Koreans in the 1990s and
the complexities that surround settlement of the issue of repatriation may
come away dissatisfied.  Nonetheless, it may be uncharitable to criticize
the production on these points, since it particularly concerns itself with
giving voice to the voiceless and remembering the forgotten.  A final
caption before the credits notes that this work is dedicated "to all those
forced to toil and suffer far from their homelands."  On its own terms, as
a moving tribute to the pain of a people and as an attempt to prevent their
stories from slipping into oblivion, A Forgotten People:  The Sakhalin
Koreans succeeds.

Epstein, Stephen  1999
Review of Dai-Sil Kim Gibson, A Forgotten People:  The Koreans of Sakhalin
Korean Studies Review 1999, no. 5
Electronic file:
[This review first appeared in Western Folklore, 57 (1998): 77-79]


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