When I first met filmmaker Eiji Han Shimizu two years ago, it was at a screening for his 2012 film “Happy,” an uplifting documentary that explores the roots of happiness around the world. After the credits rolled, he showed the audience a snippet of “True North,” his animated feature inspired by the true stories of North Korean prison camp survivors.
I remember thinking, “How did he go from exploring the source of happiness to depicting one of the darkest places in today’s world?” Shimizu’s film, which will have its Japan premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) on Nov. 1, follows the harrowing journey of 9-year-old Yo-han and his family, who are taken from their home and imprisoned after the father is accused of a political crime. At the prison camp, they struggle to survive in unimaginably harsh conditions.
The answer to my question lies in Shimizu’s search for purpose.
“Through the ‘Happy’ movie experience, I did lots of happiness boosting, you know, traveling a lot, living in Bali, meditating, prioritizing relationships over money and all that,” Shimizu says in a video call from his home in Tokyo. “These things really made me happy, but I felt that there was a missing ingredient, and that was ‘service.’
“If you do something for other people, you end up becoming the biggest beneficiary of that charity. So, selfishly, I wanted to do something altruistic.”
Then, a friend gave him a memoir of a former political prisoner, and Shimizu learned about the horrors occurring in North Korean prison camps.
“I lost my appetite for three days,” he says. “It was a degree of human rights abuses that went beyond my imagination.”
Though Shimizu, who is fourth-generation Japanese of Korean descent, grew up with an inkling of the discrimination his ancestors experienced, he realized that a far worse fate was narrowly avoided by his family. Memories of his grandparents portraying North Korea’s prison camps as the place where misbehaving children go to be punished hid a dark truth.
According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 93,000 ethnic Koreans and 2,000 Japanese spouses migrated from Japan to North Korea under the “Paradise on Earth” repatriation program between 1959 and 1984. It was a major campaign supported by not only the North Korean government, but also by the Red Cross Society and Japan’s government, to encourage ethnic Koreans and their families to migrate to North Korea.
“Koreans were poor and badly treated back then, so why not send them back to North Korea? It sounded like a fine idea,” says Shimizu.
What they encountered was closer to hell. It is estimated that approximately 120,000 prisoners are still held captive today, including Japanese nationals who have been kidnapped by North Korean operatives.
When the film premieres at TIFF, Shimizu says he will be accompanied by Song Yoon Bok, the general secretary of No Fence, an organization that seeks to free prisoners and spread accurate information about conditions in North Korean camps. According to Song, there is a report of a Japanese abductee imprisoned after she refused to teach Japanese, saying she wouldn’t betray her own country, Shimizu says. “She didn’t have anything. Not even a futon to sleep on in a cold, cold country.
“Many of (the prisoners) had their possessions (destroyed) and some were suspected of being spies and sent to political prison camps. If my mom had made one wrong decision back then, I could have ended up in political prison camp. In a way, (making this film) is like a cheap sci-fi movie where I’m trying to save myself.”
Shimizu adds that the “reason I chose the title ‘True North’ is not only because it’s the ‘true’ North Korea, it is also the ‘true north,’ that meaning (in life) that everyone is striving to find.”
Though the film has a fictional storyline, Shimizu incorporated into his script details about public exclusion, rape, friendship, romance and escape from real-life accounts and interviews with camp survivors and around 30 defectors. Shimizu and his team also did their best to accurately capture firing squad protocols, severe undernourishment and camp layouts based on satellite images.
“True North” is not just his screenwriting debut; it’s also his first animated feature.
“I wanted to expand the storyline with as many real elements as I could collect, which is why I chose (animation),” he says.
Shimizu commissioned Indonesian concept artist Andrey Pratama to lead the creation of realistic faces and expressions for the characters. Pratama then recruited 25 young, talented animators, mostly based in Jakarta. For more than two years, they worked on the design and modeling phase, where characters were transformed from ideas to sketches to 3D models using real-life human references.
“We tried a lot until we were happy with the result,” Pratama says in an email. “For instance, we had more than 50 versions of Yo-han’s face until we came up with what is in the movie.”
“I’m grateful to be supported by a bunch of talented, compassionate people, first and foremost Andrey,” Shimizu says of his dedicated team. “Pretty much everybody who joined the project did it because the subject matter is so important. A bunch of students had job offers, but instead decided to work on this independent project whose director has never made a single animated film (before) because they thought it was for a worthy cause.”
Pratama agrees that the project was deserving of the production team’s time and effort. “Since university, I’ve had a dream of creating art that could be featured in an international film festival and that could be used to create awareness for the greater good,” he writes. “Then I met Eiji and I took my chances. We share the same values and dreams. I hope our movie can reach as many people as possible and make change.”
So if making “Happy” helped Shimizu find happiness, perhaps “True North” has helped guide him toward his purpose in life?
“‘True North’ is an expression of service, which made me happy, but there’s another layer, a higher ground of happiness, where you get to make sense of your life,” says Shimizu. “Everybody has (different) experiences and roots. If we’re not careful, we can have no idea ‘why,’ you know?
“At one time I had no idea why I was born at this time in history. I didn’t know why I was born as a Japanese with Korean ancestry. I didn’t know why I met my friends. There were so many ‘why, why, whys!’ So it was really rewarding when these ‘whys’ made sense. All these ‘whys’ were solved because I was created to do this project. And that feeling of, ‘Aha, I got it! That’s why I was created!’ — that feeling was almost euphoric.”
“True North” screens at the Tokyo International Film Festival at the Toho Cinemas in Roppongi Hills on Nov. 1, 3 and 9. For more information, visit 2020.tiff-jp.net/en/lineup/film/3304WFC16 or www.truenorth.watch.
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