Review: Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! at TKFF

Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival
Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival

**Warning: Spoiler Alert**

This review is from the screening of Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! (량강도 아이들) that I watched at the Toronto Korean Film Festival earlier in June. The film was co-presented by HanVoice (a Toronto-based non-profit that advocates for human rights in North Korea and helps North Korean refuges in Toronto) and NKHRFF (North Korean Human Rights Film Festival, which has a new name this year – Jayu).

  • Year: 2011
  • Director: Kim Sung Hoon
  • TKFF Theme: Contemporary North Korea

Film Synopsis

The film starts in South Korea and we watch a group of children and adults release a bunch of balloons to fly north into North Korea laden with toys for Christmas. The rest of the film is set in a rural area in North Korea, called Ryangkang-do.

The main character’s, Jong Soo, wants to go to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. He dreams of going but in order to go, he has to collect and donate as much metal as he can for the chance to go on the school trip there. Unfortunately, the school principle decides that Jong Soo and his two friends are too small to go (they might reflect badly on the town for being so small) and they are kicked off the trip even though they collected enough metal. He’s not willing to give up and chases the bus before collapsing in the woods in grief.

While in the woods, he finds a balloon – one of the ones released at the start from South Korea – and is delighted to see the musical Christmas card, a Santa outfit and a toy robot. He brings everything back to town and shows his friends. Slowly all the other children find out and the toy robot makes Jong Soo popular, something he wasn’t before.

Kids bring Jong Soo food and other necessities in order to see and touch the robot. But not everyone is happy that Jong Soo has the robot, some want to take it from him. And to complicate matters, Jong Soo’s younger brother is seriously ill in the hospital from malnutrition and Jong Soo is trying to collect enough fuel for the ambulance to take him to a bigger hospital.

What did I think?

The first thing I jotted down about the film was “sad, sweet & poignant”. And I stand by those words. I enjoyed watching Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! and would highly recommend it. While it is a highly emotional film, it’s also (at times) cute, sweet and a very humanizing film set in North Korea. I don’t ever want to minimize the difficulties that people living there go through but it’s nice to see a film set in that country that both appears to give an accurate portrayal yet allows the majority of the characters to be likeable and not so different than you or I.

Often times, films about North Korea or that are set there – whether Korean or Western – are super depressing, only show the negative, or simply portray North Koreans as the enemy rather than as people (Hollywood is generally guilty of this). I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of negative to show but it’s refreshing to see a film that still manages to show the desperation and extreme food shortage – where a single egg is treated like gold – but also have likeable characters.

Perhaps it’s because the film is about children, the love between siblings and the nature of friendship – all positive things that everyone can relate to, and that affect all of us. Yes, it’s a sad film and yes, I cried but I also laughed and smiled. I was entertained by it which is important because don’t forget, it’s a movie not a documentary, so its purpose is to entertain as much as to inform.

A film like Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! that shows likeable characters and the humanity of the people in North Korea (because let’s face it, we may not like the government there or their policies but the people who live in North Korea are just people) will appeal to a wider audience and therefore educate people. One example that illustrates the difficulties people in North Korea have about things we take for granted that struck me was the children’s struggle in the film to get enough gas for the ambulance. An ambulance not having enough fuel isn’t something that most Westerners would even consider but it does show the great lack of wealth and resources.

Documentaries are incredibly important and can be just as entertaining as movies but often appeal to a much smaller market or audience. An engaging film like Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North!, especially one that’s as family friendly as it is, can help spread awareness of life in North Korea or at least spark interest and debate.

There was an interesting point brought up in the earlier panel at the Toronto Korean Film Festival, about learning through film. And while I think we should always take any information with a grain of salt as it’s shown through the eyes of the presenter and as such is influenced, however unintentionally, by their bias; film is a medium that has the potential to reach not only a wider audience but also the emotions of that audience. Much more so than a lecture in many cases.

Is it worth watching?

Definitely! In fact, I highly recommend it. It’s simply a good film so go see it for the pure entertainment of it (just bring tissues). And if you’re interested in human rights in general or North Korea in particular, than Ryangkang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! is a film you should definitely see if you haven’t already.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm on the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival. Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher.

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