Director – Kim So-young (as Kim Jeong) – 2017 – South Korea – 87m
How an indigenous theatre company kept the culture of the Koryo people alive after they were deported by the Soviet authorities from Far East Russia to Kazakhstan in 1937 – in the documentary season: Korean Film Nights: In Transit presented by LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival
The Beijing Treaty (of 1860 although the date isn’t mentioned) ceded to Russia the so-called Maritime Province – an area of land stretching down to Vladivostock. The territory bordered on the Northwestern tip of Choson (Joseon), today’s Korea, and Chosons stated migrating into the Maritime Province, calling themselves the Koryo people. In late 1937, the Soviet authorities decided that the Koryos could potentially be Japanese spies and deported them in boarded up trains to Ushtobei, Kazakhstan, Central Asia.
The journey took two days and many children died, their corpses thrown unceremoniously out of the train at night. After the journey, the deportees faced a harsh winter, the eventual death toll rising to 40 000.
This story has been documented in Korea, but little else about the Koryos has. The first Kazakhstan Koryo settlement in Ushtobei is today marked by a memorial. It’s pressed into service here as a projection surface for black and white, archive moving image clips of Koryo theatre. Performers at the Koryo Theatre in Vladivostock were deported at the same time, swiftly rebranded themselves as the Arirang Ensemble Of Koryo and toured all over Khazakhstan, including Kyzylorda and Almaty. Appearing before audiences bereft of children and old people, they would be thanked by them after the performance which dealt with this loss.
Actress Lee Hamdeok swiftly assumed the mantle of people’s actress, a now fondly remembered cultural figurehead of a generation described by those who met her as “humble wherever she went”. She performed and sang while her husband wrote plays about Koryo life, culture and historic tragedy.
The deportees are labelled the First Generation Koryo people. The much younger Third Generation Choi Tatiana lived for six months in the home of the woman she reverently refers to as “Miss Hamdeok” who taught her Korean and schooled her in the role of major Koryo character Chun Hyang. (There’s footage of Hamdeok playing the character, but precious little information about either the character or the play.) The diva would tie her pupil’s ankles together, as Choi recalls to camera, “to make me walk gracefully” to the sound of Hamdeok’s janggu playing.
A photograph shows first and third Chun Hyangs Hamdeok and Choi together with Second Generation Koryo Park Maya, the second actress to play the role. So effective is director Kim’s build up to Park that when she turns up as an interview subject, the audience feels a genuine thrill that the production managed to track her down. She spent her whole life touring with the company, and recalls having to wait until 10pm in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the farmworkers to come in from working in the rice fields before the company could start performing the play. There wasn’t a lot to do in the area, and the play provided the local Koryo women the perfect excuse to wear their new dresses.
Maya turns out not to have been born Koryo. The story eventually emerges that her alcoholic father shot her mother one night while drunk then committed suicide. The orphaned Maya was adopted by a Koryo family then later deported along with the rest of them. Further interview subjects include her daughter Riya, also a singer, albeit one who sings primarily Russian songs.
When the Soviet Union opened up to the outside world, Koreans were amazed to learn that the Arirang Ensemble had kept the Koryo cultural traditions alive.
Before seeing this film, I had never heard of the Koryo people. Watching it, however, proved both compelling and informative. Director Kim apparently had a similar experience making the film, feeling there was far too much material for a single film, eventually settling on making a trilogy (the ‘Exiled’ trilogy) of which this is but one part. (See this fascinating piece she wrote in which she talks about both that and the wider context of the activist Korean documentary movement with particular reference to Two Doors, Kim Il-rhan, Hong Ji-you, 2011.) Recent global pandemic history, where communities have suffered considerable mortality rates and begun asking questions about “the new normal”, resonates with this film as it tackles similar issues. Which is why it played in the current season. A smart programming choice.
Sound Of Nomad: Koryo Arirang plays in the documentary season: Korean Film Nights: In Transit presented by LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival. More info about the season here.
Film trailer here (sorry, no subtitles).
LKFF 2020 TRAILER: