“The Story of Our Home” – 2016 Pyongyang Film Review


The first North Korean feature film to hit the big screen in quite some time, “The Story of Our Home” (우리 집 이야기) is loosely based on the true story of Jang Jong Hwa, who as a teenager decides to care of three orphaned siblings, eventually adopting four more parentless children and becoming nationally known as the “child mother.”  In “The Story of Our Home,” the characters’ names are changed and the picture begins from the perspective of the oldest of those, Un Jong (Kim Thae Gum), who occasionally narrates while looking back on her time as a petulant teenager trying to act as main caretaker for her younger sister Un Hyang (Kim Pom Gyong) and brother Un Chol (O Hyon Chol).  (A fourth sibling, the oldest brother Un Sok, is an army soldier who is unaware of his mother’s death because no one has had the courage to inform him in letters.)

As Un Jong’s frustration mounts, her grades drop and her temper increasingly flares up.  Enter the 18-year-old Ri Jong A (Paek Sol Mi, at 24 making her film debut), devoted in equal parts to her catering job, her youth league meetings and her parents.  Although Jong A wants to alleviate some of the stress placed on the siblings, Un Jong sees any helping hand as an indication that she cannot handle the situation on her own.  If she relents and accepts help, the smallest of perceived mistakes results in Un Jong harshly rebuking that person, who she deems as a substitute caretaker for her late mother.  Thus begins what is seen as a thankless journey by Jong A to win over the trust of Un Jong, one that her comrades even think can be avoided when it would be so much easier to send the siblings to state-run orphanages instead.

Gorgeously shot and edited, and rife with three-dimensional characters struggling to make defining life choices, this portion of “The Story of Our Home” is instantly relatable.  As the petulant Un Jong vacillates between the role of caretaker and her academic studies, Jong A follows a similar path, struggling with her role as foster parent versus an only daughter to two aging parents.  Once the raw emotions of Un Jong settle, the photogenic Paek – who trained in acting in Pyongyang – steps to the forefront as the radiant Jong A.  (There are even some refreshingly modern touches, such as a small inclusion of product placement featuring North Korea’s top cosmetics company, Pomhyanggi, and a reflection of the subtle changes that have permeated the country’s society in recent years, such as mobile phone calls interrupting conversations.)

The picture falters a bit after Jong A has decided to dedicate her life to helping orphans after the siblings have accepted her as their “girl mother.”  This coincides with a shift from the concept of home as one family unit to home as country.  As such, the unabashedly patriotic execution of Jong A’s transition from a small-town girl to a nationally-known figure is quizzically approached in a staccato manner, jumping from one potential ending to another melodramatic ending to yet another.  Her speech at a national congress, for instance, seems to be an incongruous leap beyond the confines of her hometown, forcing those who know the real story to mentally connect the dots and others to wonder how she got there.  Difficult decisions need not continue to carry such burdens, and what should be a celebration for Jong A achieving her dream – as she is asked about throughout the film – is instead treated in a heavy manner.

“The Story of Our Home” made its world premiere at the 2016 Pyongyang International Film Festival, screening at the Taedongmun Cinema Hall No. 1 on Sep. 20.  According to the Associated Press, the film won the Best Torch Award – equivalent to the festival’s “best film” award – and Paek Sol Mi captured the Prize for Best Actress.