Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: October 2006 (page 1 of 2)

Ad-ing Fuel to the Fire

Given that Korean pop music is pretty dreadful, it is always kind of surprising to hear cool music coming from so many advertisements on TV and radio. Sure, there is a lot of pop and mainstream stuff like James Blunt (The Face Shop), Pink (Anycall) and Boa (Olympus). But there is also more interesting stuff like the Clash (LG Telecom), Kings of Convenience (Maxwell House) and The Killers (Shinwha Bank).

Sometimes, however, even cool music can be quite funny (like when LG’s Chai Apartments use Magnetic Fields’ “100,000 Fireflies”, and you hear the line “It makes me want to kill myself”… I doubt that association was what the advertising company was aiming for).

Sometimes, I hear music that I cannot identify, but fortunately we have a couple of websites to help out: www.tvcf.co.kr and www.cfmusic.co.kr. Both sites have a wealth of information about the advertisements currently gracing the Korean airwaves. Unfortunately, you do need to register to have access to most of those sites, and the sites are only in Korean. But if you can dig up an ID and can handle the Korean on the sites, both are extremely useful and fun.

The one ad that has been really bugging me for the last couple of months was the recent Nike ads, featuring Korean and Japanese athletes, and the singer BoA (they made local versions for Korea and Japan, but BoA was in both). I thought the song was really catchy, but had the worst time trying to find out what it was. Googling did not help me out either.

Actually, in this case, even CF-Music and TVCF did not help me enough. Only Naver could help. And even then, “Boa + Nike” did not help at all. But for some reason, “Nike + Boa” brought up the song name in the first hit — Go Team. Good stuff.

Korea Weekend Box Office – Oct. 27-29

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was the No. 1 film last weekend, despite a relatively modest rollout (239 screens), thanks to Korea’s plethora of On Style-watching young women. On Style is a TV station in Korea popular with young professional women… the kind of channel that shows a lot of SEX & THE CITY and FRIENDS and OPRAH. Over the last few years, that demographic has become the main driving force of many trends over here. Young Korean women watch more TV than men do, go to Starbucks, eat at TGIFRidays and, of course, shop.

TRACES OF LOVE, the opening film from the Pusan Film Festival, opened in second. I have nothing special to say about this melodrama (I already made a few comments in my PIFF opening story a couple of weeks ago).

TAZZA bounced back to No. 3 this week, and has now topped 6-million admissions, making it the about the eight-biggest movie ever in Korea (depending on who’s counting).

ONE PIECE is some silly Japanese animation. Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of it.

This Week Title…………………………………. Release Date Screens Nationwide Weekend Attendance (Seoul only) Total Attendance
1. The Devil Wears Prada 10.26 239 129,800 479,000
2. Traces of Love 10.26 315 101,900 420,100
3. Tazza: The High Rollers 9.27 367 84,000 6,181,000
4. Righteous Ties 10.19 381 79,000 1,217,000
5. Hearty Paws 10.26 309 76,700 400,700
6. Radio Star 9.27 190 39,400 1,733,700
7. One Piece 10.26 140 9,500 36,300

(Source: Film2.0)

Tazza – More Guppy Than Shark

Movies about gambling have given us some great stories over the years — Paul Newman’s THE HUSTLER, Matt Damon in ROUNDERS, Chow Yun-Fat in GOD OF GAMBLERS… Tom Cruise and Newman again in THE COLOR OF MONEY. (And, of course, there are plenty of movies about the gambling business, Las Vegas and the like, CASINO, BUGSY, THE STING, but I am referring more to movies about gambling itself, about the psychology of gambling, and not so much about movies that use gambling as a backdrop to tell another story).

So I was pretty interested in Choi Dong-hun’s stylish card-shark movie, TAZZA: THE HIGH ROLLERS (also known as WAR OF FLOWER, before CJ Entertainment wisely changed its English name). (And, yes, I am a month late here, but I finally saw the movie last weekend). Much like Choi’s first film, THE BIG SWINDLE, TAZZA offered oodles of style, but unfortunately, it did not offer much more than that, as an inspired opening soon gave way to cliche.

TAZZA certainly has plenty of style. Everyone seems to be dressed in eye-popping colors, with kind of an over-the-top ’70s garish thing going on (but in a good way). And the music is perhaps the best movie soundtrack music I have ever heard in a Korean film. Just avoiding the usual Japanese snorefest or Korean bombast is a step in the right direction, but this really was first rate. Sexy, slinky, totally fit the mood.

The story, however, does not measure up to the style. Here is how CJ Entertainment described the film:

Goni (Cho Seung-woo) leads a boring life working at a small furniture factory. One day he becomes a victim of a con game and loses his family’s fortune. Running away from home, Goni wanders from town to town. By fate, he meets Pyeong (Baek Yoon-shik) who is one of 3 Tazzas (a master Hwatu card player). Under Master Pyeong’s tutorage, Goni aims to also become a Tazza. Nothing is what it seems and no one is to be trusted in the world of high rollers.

So, what do we have? Guy dresses bad, is a weakling and loses at cards. Then he learns from an expert, learns how to fight and starts dressing really well (or at least really flashy). And… that’s about it. Emasculated loser becomes Mr. Big. Nothing particularly wrong with this story, but it is one we have all seen a thousand times before.

There is, of course, a twist or two… none of which thrilled me. Although the train sequence toward the end was pretty amusing (I will not spoil it, though).

My biggest complaint is that the movie never really lets us into the game of hwa-tu, never really lets us into the mind of the players or the dynamics of the game. We see Goni learning how to cheat a lot, but not much else. He learns to deal from the bottom of the deck, how to keep track of the shuffle and a whole bunch of tricks, but we do not learn much about the actual game (an automatic card shuffler like many casinos use these days would pretty much kill this movie). I’m no expert at hwa-tu, but I wonder if the game is inherently limiting in how much drama you can get out of it.

As for the acting… Baek is, as usual, very good. Cho is mostly okay, too. And Kim Hye-soo is surprising good most of the time.

So, to sum up, TAZZA is a run, stylish romp, but do not expect a great story. It was not a terrible story, but it is a little disappointing because it easily could have been so much better.

If you are interested in the game of hwa-tu, there is an online DOS version available here. Unfortunately, www.mrhwatu.com seems to be blocked in Korea. Lots of information and links here.

Kim Il Passes Away

One of Korea’s greatest professional wrestlers, Kim Il has passed away. Kim, who was better known in Japan as Kintaro Ohki, was the man most responsible for bringing pro graps from Japan over to Korea in the 1960s.

Trained by Rikidozan (Kim Shin-rak) in the late 1950s, Kim Il made his debut around the same time as Antonio Inoki (handing Inoki a loss in Inoki’s debut match) and the Giant Baba, although he never acheived the heights of fame and popularity that either of those men did.

While professional wrestling was for many years extremely popular in Korea, it never quite reached the insane levels it did in Japan. And then in the early 1990s, when the local TV stations revealed how wrestling is “fake”, the sport’s popularity plummeted and never really recovered. Now, the WWE does okay when it swings by here once or twice a year, but there is very little local wrestling (despite what THE FOUL KING might have you believe).

I find it incredibly interesting now Korean audiences were never able to come to grips with the unreality of professional wrestling, in a way that never seemed to bother Japanese audiences (or how acknowledging pro wrestling’s scripted side only made the WWE more popular in the late 1990s). Why does that bother some people so much? Who gets upset when they learn that Arnold Schwarzenegger is not really a robot or that the actors playing Romeo and Juliet are not really dead at the end of the play?

(This is not an exclusively Korean problem, of course. In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern era in Europe, when Morality Plays were first catching on, the Church objected to plays largely on the grounds that people would not be able to tell the difference between the story and reality. It is a concern that lives on, from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST to THE DA VINCI CODE, from THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG to DEATH OF A PRESIDENT). (End of digression).

Professional wrestling, at its best, is extra-large pantomime… telling stories for thousands of people without using any words. Plays might feature a duel or sword fight or whatever to advance their stories, but pro wrestling is basically making the entire play out of the duel, stripping away the words. Sure, it can be vulgar and simplistic and have the air of the Roman Colosseum; but at its best, pro wrestling is fantastic theater.

Anyhow, a Youtube clip of Kim Il versus the Giant Baba, featuring plenty of Kim Il’s famous headbutts. Sweet. Not so sweet, however, is how that Youtube match ends.

(PS: Sorry for the lack of posts, but in this case it is a good thing — the book has been going well. And the book always trumps all over tasks.)

Korea Weekend Box Office – Oct. 20-22

Only a couple of new titles this week, but one of them is the new No. 1 — Jang Jin’s latest, RIGHTEOUS TIES. Jang has had several successes over the past few years, including GUNS AND TALKS (which he wrote and directed), WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL (he wrote the stage play and the movie, and produced the movie), and MURDER TAKE ONE (wrote the play, wrote the script and directed). On the other hand, he has more than a few “underperformers” next to his name, such as THE SPY, SOMEONE SPECIAL or A MAN WHO WENT TO MARS.

GANGSTER HIGH, on the other hand, had a really impressively poor debut. Just 21,200 tickets sold? (And that includes Thursday night). Given that it was shown on 134 screens, that works out to a $1,000 per screen average. Ouch.

This Week Title…………………………………. Release Date Screens Nationwide Weekend Attendance (Seoul only) Total Attendance
1. Righteous Ties 10.19 476 137,000 631,000
2. Tazza: The High Rollers 9.27 438 129,000 5,689,000
3. Radio Star 9.27 236 69,300 1,538,400
4. World Trade Center 10.12 140 30,000 340,000
5. D.O.A. 10.19 205 27,800 106,800
6. Lady in the Water 10.12 62 10,700 132,600
7. Marrying the Mafia 3: Family Hustle 9.21 181 8,000 3,450,200
8. Gangster High 10.19 134 5,800 21,200
9. Maundy Thursday 9.14 140 2,300 3,140,900
10. Ant Bully 9.27 16 1,600 288,000

(Source: Film2.0)

Zombies Zombies Zombies

I think I might start a semi-regular feature here, which I will not-so-inventively call Coming Attractions — a look at some movie and/or movies coming down the pike. And the first thing that comes to mind is all the zombie movies that are on the way.

This is an especially strange trend because I cannot remember any zombie movies in Korea. There was WALK LIKE A ZOMBIE (“Jombi-cheoreom Georeobwa”) in 2004, but that movie did not have any zombies in it (that I know of… I did not see it and I do not know anyone who saw it). And, of course, there have been plenty of movies featuring dead, undead, and not-so-dead spirits over the years. Plenty of zombies in the audience, but not so many up on the screens.

That is all about to change. Grace Lee (of THE GRACE LEE PROJECT) is working on an English-language film in the United States, but using iHQ money, called AMERICAN ZOMBIE. Ms Lee’s film is about two documentary filmmakers who discover a kind of “zombie festival” (like Lollapalooza?) they want to film, but things go awry (of course). This film is nearly done.

Jane Shin is making MOMMY’S RISEN, also low budget, about an 11-year-old kid sent to an orphanage when, surprise, his mommy comes back. She is not a brain-eater, however. Instead, mommy reopens her grocery store and tries to live her… uh, life. Live her death? Unlife? Anyhow, she goes about her business, but her body starts to decay and stink. When she tries to stop a bully from bothering her son, something goes wrong (even more wrong than the whole zombie thing).

Lucy Film is putting together one of those annoying three-short-films movies, but this one actually looks really good. It’s DOOMSDAY BOOK, and all three stories are pretty out there. “Heavenly Creature” is by Kim Jee-woon (TALE OF TWO SISTERS) and is about a robot at a Buddhist temple that has attained supreme Buddhist enlightenment, greatly annoying the engineer who built it. “The Gift of the Magi” is by Han Jae-rim (THE RULES OF DATING) and is about people trying to get off the Earth one Christmas, in the last few hours before the Earth is destroyed.

But the third short is the zombie one, by Yim Pil-sung (ANTARCTIC JOURNAL), and stars Ryoo Seung-bum. This is about a guy who meets up with some local toxic waste, meets a nice girl with a huge appetite for galbi, and finds some strange bruises and health problems arising. Understated, but definitely potential here.

But it is Ryoo brother, Ryoo Seung-wan, who is tackling the biggest zombie project of all. YACHA is going to be big — perhaps $10 million. It is still in pre-production, but it is Show East’s next big-budget movie and they have high hopes for it. But I think they are aiming for 2008. Maybe late 2007?

So, there you go. Four zombie movies on the way.

With so many films being made these days in Korea (it looks like over 100 will be released this year, which would be the most since 1991), there are certainly plenty to talk about. But we might have some huge news about one particular film. Maybe in the next week or two? If I’m allowed to tell, then I will pass the word on.

Screw the $500 Million, We Want Our Placebos!

The Ministry of Culture (along with the Uri Party and the extremely reluctant Korean Film Council) announced the long await “aid” package coming to the film industry, to make up for the halving of the screen quota. $521 million over the next five years, going to encourage art-house cinemas and independent film production, increase Korean film exports, and to better design and enforce copyrights and related legislation.

$521 million in “aid” going to the Korean film industry. Koreans spent $939 million going to the movies last year. About $563 million of that went to local movies, most of the rest to Hollywood, with a few dregs to Japan and here and there. So, government “aid” to the local industry could equal nearly 20% of the local industry ($100 million a year to a $563 million industry). Wow. Or just 10% if you include the entire market, but that is still a “wow”.

Now, I have long been a non-fan of Korea’s screen quota. I consider it a placebo that distracts people from

PIFF Wrap-up

So, what to say about this year’s PIFF? A little over 160,000 people turned out for 245 films. That number is a pretty big drop from last year (when attendance topped 190,000), but there were fewer movies screened over one less day this year (nine days, instead of the usual 10). In fact, the per-screen average was about the same as last year.

Also, it looks like organizers pretty much have gotten the kinks out of the system now. Ticket sales were largely glitch-free and smooth. Perhaps too smooth — thanks to online ticketing, seats for the most in-demand films were snatched up in seconds. You need to be a World of Warcraft champion to snag tickets to the hottest movies (of course, with a Press badge, life is strikingly different). But PIFF has always been a popular event, and there is no way around those sorts of scarcity problems, especially in the festival’s opening days, when things are busiest. Going to later screenings, in the last four or five days of the festival, is much calmer. Usually.

The most annoying thing about the festival, imodo, is the festival organizers’ continuing insistance on petty, moronic rules — in particular, the rule that you must have a ticket to get in the theater, even when there are empty seats. Really guys, the goal at a film festival is for people to see movies, not to support ticket manufacturers. When the film is ready to start, if there are empty seats and people who want to see it, let them in (in some sort of order… say buyers, festival pass holders, and finally press).

(Luckily, the old trick still works of getting a movie ticket to a nearby, less popular movie, then telling the volunteer at the theater door that you already entered and just went to the bathroom.)

And there are plenty of other annoying hang-ups. Like their organizers’ insistance that all interviews must must go through the festival. Why? Sorry, but if I have a connection with someone I need to talk to, I will have my interview whenever we think it best.

Anyhow, none of these problems are life and death. And I am just talking about watching movies; there are certainly more pressing issues facing the world. But it would be nice if the PIFF organizers put a little more thought into how the run things from the audience’s point of view. It’s not like PIFF is some big for-profit corporation. Korea desperately needs to build its non-mainstream movie audiences (hell, non-mainstream everything), and PIFF should set up its rules with that in mind.

Also, the weather this year was pretty much perfect — 25 degress by day, 13 at night, mostly sunny and no rain. Kudos to… uh, god, I guess.

Korean Music Charts – September

Look at that… while I was busy in Busan, the Music Industry Association of Korea came out with a new music chart.

The most noticeable part of the chart is the utter lack of Shinwha, even though the band was No. 1 last month. This has happened before, so I assume the problem is with MIAK. Perhaps Shinwha’s distributor is having some sort of tiff with MIAK, or something like that. On the other hand, Shinwha has the No. 1 spot on the foreign chart… So basically I have no idea.

Anyhow, the charts this month are absolutely stuffed with new releases. I wonder if the music biz is like the movies in Korea, with the Chuseok holidays creating a hot season. Embarassing to say I have never looked into that before.

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. Dong Bang Shin Gi Vol. 3 – Oh! Jeong. Ban. Hab 9.28 120,505 120,505
2. Lee Seung-chul Reflection of Sound 9.27 27,102 27,102
3. Koyote London Koyote 9.18 25,746 25,746
4. Nell Vol. 3 9.21 22,869 22,869
5. Big Bang Vol. 2 (Single) 9.28 21,000 21,000
6. SG Wannabe Vol 3 – The Third Masterpieces 4.07 14,178 290,951
7. Jang Ri-in Jang Ri-in Vol. 1 – Timeless (Single) 9.08 12,786 12,786
8. Paran Vol. 2 – Beyond the Blue Sky 9.04 12,052 12,052
9. Bae Chi Gi My Way 9.04 11,296 11,296
10. See Ya Vol. 1 2.24 10,935 89,822

(source: MIAK)

And here is the foreign sales chart:

This Month Artist Album Name Release Date This Month’s Sales Total Sales
1. Shinwha Japan Single 9.06 15,052 15,052
2. Arashi The Best Collection of 2002-2004 9.12 8,484 8,484
3. Beyonce B’Day 9.04 6,677 6,677
5. Stacie Orrico Beautiful Awakening 9.01 5,828 5,828
5. Christina Aguilera Back to Basics 8.14 5,571 17,085
6. Arashi Single Collection – 1999-2001 9.12 5,485 5,485
7. Justin Timberlake Futuresex/Love Sounds 9.12 5,378 5,378
8. Jo Sumi With Love: Best of Jo Sumi 8.25 4,527 11,524
9. Fergie The Dutchess 9.19 4,101 4,101
10. Richard Yongjae O’Neil Lachrymae 9.07 3,358 3,358

(source: MIAK)

Crossing the Line

UPDATE: Hah! My story has already been linked… to a Pro-North Korean website. If you are in South Korea, where that website is blocked, you can Google to read a cached version.
www.minjok.com/english/news.php3?code=2244

ORIGINAL:
As I mentioned in passing earlier, I wrote a feature for the New York Times while at the Pusan International Film Festival, about the latest Daniel Gordon documentary CROSSING THE LINE. The feature is now online, and you can read it here.

The story was also picked up by the International Herald Tribune. The IHT is owned by the NYT, so they can use the same stories, however, they are edited and put together totally separately. So even though I wrote just one story, the two versions look quite different.

Contributing to the disparity was that I wrote far too much — I was asked for 1,000 words, but I gave them 1,400. Both papers needed to cut, but each chose to cut very different material. The NYT cut the quotes I had by people who had been to North Korea, but were not really part of the movie. Whereas the IHT left those quotes and instead cut the part about Dresnok rebutting the charges made by fellow defector Robert Jenkins.

Hey, just for fun, here is the original story that I wrote, in case anyone is curious. Kinds of interesting to see how different editors tackle the same material.

BUSAN, South Korea – Even at 64 years old and in failing health, James Dresnok projects an imposing figure. Six-foot-five with a huge frame and giant jowls, he speaks into the camera with a firm but distinct southern accent. Metal teeth glint as he talks. “I will give you the truth. I’ve never told anyone before,” says James Dresnok – former soldier, defector, and for the past 44 years resident of Pyongyang, North Korea.

Dresnok’s tale lies at the center of Daniel Gordon’s latest documentary, “Crossing the Line,” along with the stories of three other American defectors who crossed the 2.5-mile, landmine-strewn demilitarized zone into North Korea. Consider it the anti-Shawshank Redemption.

The documentary is Mr. Gordon’s third surprising look inside the usually secretive Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. The first, “The Game of Their Lives” looked at the 1966 World Cup soccer team that defeated the Italians and made it, against all odds, to the Cup’s quarter-finals. Then “A State of Mind” followed two young girls participating in the North’s overwhelming mass games.

The soccer-mad director met his co-producer, Nick Bonner, in 1997 while researching the North Korean soccer team. The always-exuberant and mischievous Mr. Bonner has been working with North Korea from out of Beijing for 14 years as the director of Koryo Tours. “Game of Their Lives” made Gordon and Bonner minor celebrities in North Korea, and with each film they have used that goodwill to delve deeper into mysterious nation. “We have taken an apolitical viewpoint, with interviews from both sides of the spectrum,” wrote Mr. Gordon in an email. “Our previous films have been shown both in North and South Korea and worldwide – we take this as a significant acceptance of their neutrality.”

But “Crossing the Line,” which had its world premiere Monday night at the Pusan International Film Festival, explores much more political and controversial territory. Bonner and Gordon have received incredible access to people and places in North Korea, more with each movie. “This was the story that we thought we could never tell,” said Mr. Bonner, over Korean makgeolli after the premiere. “But we said to the North Koreans, if someone does not make this film soon, you won’t ever have any record.”

Dresnok was born poor in Norfolk, Virginia in 1941, but his parent split up when he was 9, and soon after his father abandoned him. Dresnok ended up bouncing through a series of foster homes, and on his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Army. When he returned from a two-year stint in Germany, he found his wife had taken a lover and wanted a divorce. Feeling abandoned yet again, Dresnok was crushed. Even now, decades later, the memory is one of two times in the film that he cries. “I’m just thankful we never had any kids, because I swore I would never leave my children,” he said as he broke down.

Soon after, Dresnok re-enlisted, this time was assigned to South Korea, but now his bitterness had turned him into a hell-raiser, spending all of his money on prostitutes and drinking. “I was fed up. If I died or I lived, I didn’t care.” On noon, August 15, 1962, with a court martial looming, Private 1st Class James Dresnok picked up the 12-gauge shotgun he was cleaning and, wearing his fatigues, walked across the DMZ in broad daylight.

Once in the North, Dresnok joined Private Larry Allen Abshier, who had defected three months earlier. In December 1963, Spc. 4 Jerry Wayne Parrish also defected, and then Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins in January 1965. Together, the four became propaganda heroes for the North and major headaches for the US government.

After a couple of years in North Korea, though, the cultural problems had grown too great, so in 1966 the four fled to the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, asking for asylum. But the Russians just turned them over to the North Koreans. Dresnok braced for some horrible punishment – but, he says, none came. They were just ordered to undergo more education. Finally, Dresnok decided he would try to fit in. “Goddamn it, I’m going to learn their way of life,” he said. “Man is the master of his life, and little by little I became to understand the Korean people.”

By 1974, Dresnok was considered rehabilitated, and was granted North Korean citizenship. He married an Eastern European woman and had two children. After that wife passed away, he remarried and has another son. He started appearing in propaganda films in 1978 with “Nameless Heroes,” and acted in over a dozen films over the next decade. Many North Koreans to this day call him “Mr. Arthur,” after a character he played in one film.

Jenkins is now North Korea’s headache, and Dresnok could barely contain his disgust when talking about him. Jenkins left North Korea in 2004, giving a series of high-profile interviews about the wretched life he endured in his four decades there – Dresnok vehemently denies all of Jenkins accusations, calling him a liar and bore, and implying with a grin that Jenkins had impotence problems. As for Jenkins’ claim that Dresnok used to beat him sadistically, Dresnok responds that they once got in a fight, but there were only two punches: “I hit him and he hit the ground.” After a few minutes, though, the visibly agitated Dresnok asks to change the subject. “The more I think about him, the more I get the ass.”

Dresnok certainly sounds like a true believer in the North Korean system. “I wouldn’t trade it for nuthin’,” he states emphatically. He takes great pride in that two of his three sons attend the prestigious Foreign Language School in Pyongyang, saying he never could have afforded that in the United States. “I don’t want my sons to be an illiterate old man like me,” he says. But Dresnok is a celebrity in North Korea, and Pyongyang, although it is poor by Western standards, is still the city of the elite. “Yeah, anyone living in Pyongyang is privileged,” said Mr. Bonner. “But the main force behind us was human interest.”

“Crossing the Line” is not the only North Korean offering on hand at this year’s Pusan festival. “Comrades in Dreams,” by German filmmaker Uli Gaulke, looked at movie projectionists in North Korea, as well as the United States, India and Burkina Faso. “I was frustrated by the small number of images in the media about North Korea,” Mr. Gaulke said. “I wanted to create a real figure, a flesh-and-blood person, in contrast to all the usual images of North Koreans.” Perhaps he did too good of a job, because when Mr. Gaulke showed his film to North Korean officials three weeks ago they did not like it. “They said that allowing me to shoot the movie was a bad idea. I took that as a compliment.”

Often, even harder than getting access to North Korea is maintaining that access over time. “You have to respect that their beliefs are important to them,” said Michael vanderZweet, a Canadian who has traveled to North Korea several times, including six months working for the Global Aid Network. “If you live there, you go out drinking with people, you build trust, you build relationships. You cannot help but built relationships.”

Relationships are perhaps the key to why Dresnok and the other American defectors built their lives in North Korea. Three of the four American defectors (save Jenkins) came from broken homes, with missing or abusive fathers. Instead, they made homes in the most extreme totalitarian father-state in the world, a country that has turned Confucian family values into a national ideology, with Kim Il Sung the ultimate father figure. Dresnok’s father might have abandoned him, but he found Kim Il Sung and a country that never would. Even though Dresnok now suffers from numerous health problems (mostly related to his smoking and drinking, which he refuses to stop), the North Korean government continues to provide for him and his family.

Which leads into just the second time Dresnok breaks down in the film. While talking about the North Korean famines of the 1990s, Dresnok says that despite the hundreds of thousands who died, the North Koreans never cut his rations. “Why? Why do they let their own people starve to death to feed an American?” Dresnok asks as he tears up. “The Great Leader has given us a special solicitude. The government is going to take care of me until my dying day.”

— Mark Russell

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