(This review is part of a series related to my professional development project of attending the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.)
Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman (original title: Madame B, histoire d’une Nord-Coréenne)
(France/South Korea, 2016)
directed by Jero Yun
This documentary is a fascinating glimpse into the world of escapees from North Korea. It follows the titular Mrs. B as she travels from China to South Korea to claim refugee status. She has left a husband and sons behind in North Korea, and her ultimate goal is to help them start a life in South Korea too.
However, there are a couple of complications: when she escaped over the border from North Korea to China, she was sold to a Chinese man, so she actually has two husbands, one North Korean, and one Chinese. The more surprising complication, however, is that she actually loves her Chinese husband and his family, and the feeling is reciprocal: they are justifiably worried about her as she embarks on the long and dangerous journey to South Korea from their tiny rural Chinese village. The day before she leaves, her mother in law insists on giving her money, saying it’s to help her sons. Mrs. B gruffly teases her in-laws and tries to refuse the money, saying that they need it more.
Really, nothing is as black and white in this story as one might expect. When the film first opens, we see to our surprise that the trafficked has become the trafficker: full of hustle and enterprise, Mrs. B runs a healthy business herself, helping people escape from North Korea (for pay). Part of her success stems from her fluency in both Mandarin and Korean–a sign of how completely she has embraced her new life in China. The reality is, she’s a strong-willed woman torn between two families. She feels guilty and despairing over having to choose between them.
The director, Jero Yun, has managed to get amazing footage of Mrs. B and her two families. Various family members speak surprisingly openly and touchingly about their ambivalence and conflicting emotions. The film isn’t beautiful in a conventional way–it’s grainy and grey and suitably bleak, but it is a unique window into a life we know little about here in the West. I would love to see a follow up so we could find out how Mrs. B’s story turns out.