Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, November 2013
Synopsis: From his Seoul apartment, Shin Dyong-huk relates his life story. Born in 1983 in Camp 14, a North Korean death camp, to patents married by a guard as a reward for the father’s good labour, Shin’s first memory is a visit with his mother to a public execution. From age six he was put to work in the coal mines. At age 14, he informed on his own mother and brother for discussing escape, and found himself being tortured for the next seven months in the camp prison, leaving him permanently scarred and crippled. Thereafter he was taken together with his father directly to the public execution of his mother and brother.
Aged 23, Shin escaped with an older man (the latter dying in the attempt), and, now outside of the camp’s perimeter for the very first time, made his way across the border to China, and eventually to South Korea for weeks of debriefing followed by integration into a society that he still finds alienating. He is now a member of LINK (Liberty In North Korea), and tells his stories at human rights conferences around the world.
There are also interviews with Hyuk Kwon, a former commander of guards from Camp 22, and with Oh Yangnam, a former agent for North Korea’s Secret Police.
Review: “I sit in the room without thoughts and without really doing anything. This quietude helps me kill time. I don’t really want to think about anything.”
The speaker is Shin Dyong-huk, one of very few people to have escaped a North Korean death camp, making the tale that he has lived to tell of crucial importance to the South Korean government and to human rights organisations – and of considerable curiosity value for the world’s press (whose overtures Shin “politely refuse[s]”). Shin is a quiet and quietly traumatised man, living simply in a Seoul apartment whose lack of furnishings he seems to have modelled (as a sort of home away from home) on his altogether less comfortable accommodation in Camp 14. He was born there in 1983, and for the next 23 years of his life knew only suffering and starvation, beatings and torture, forced labour and total obedience (on pain of public execution), with the outside world, not to mention normal familial/social relations, always on the other side of the electrified fence.
German documentarian Marc Wiese (Das Mädchen und das Foto, 2010; Kanun – The Law of Honour, 2009) turns his subject’s quietude into a filmmaking principle. For much as Shin narrates his experiences in calm, measured tones, marking his continuing anguish not with on-camera breakdowns or emotive gestures, but rather with long silences and awkward expressions of discomfort, Camp 14: Total Control Zone too adopts a hushed approach, letting Shin’s words speak for themselves, and allowing their full impact to hit in the breathing spaces of his drawn-out pauses. There is no music in the film’s mix, although muted tones of wind and rain can at times be heard, conjuring the sounds of the camp without anything that approaches sensationalism. Similarly Ali Soozandeh’s plain animated sequences of the camp are painted in subdued browns and greys, subtly evoking an oppressive atmosphere without actually showing any abuse.
It is this very understatement, and the weight given to Shin’s words over any accompanying sound or image, that prevent Wiese’s film from ever seeming exploitative, even though it is addressing unimaginable human depravity and degradation. For this is a film that places autoptic testimony on the record, and not just from Shin, but also from former guard commander turned family man Hyuk Kwon and one-time operative, interrogator and killer for the Secret Police Oh Yangnam (who fears future retribution from those he has tortured, and declares, “after this interview, I’ll never talk about my life in the camp again.”).
All this is sobering and numbing to watch. Shin’s painful admission that he informed on his own mother and brother because those were the only rules he knew, and that he then felt no grief at the aftermath because he “hadn’t learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”, reveal a man broken by the knowledge that freedom has brought him. That he (much like the protagonist of Lajos Koltai’s 2005 Holocaust feature Fateless) expresses nostalgia for both camp life and for the innocence he enjoyed there, comes as a haunting coda to this troubling film on individual and national trauma.