People who dread going to their parents' for Thanksgiving may think differently after seeing "Sona, the Other Myself." Japanese-born Korean Yang Yonghi's documentary witnesses the transient joys and long-term heartaches of her family, who only had a few reunions over whole decades, as they are divided between Osaka and Pyongyang.
Yang's "Dear Pyongyang" won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2006 and was a sleeper hit in Japan, even allaying some Japanese's long-held suspicions about "Zainichi" (ethnic Koreans). This sequel is no less personal or touching. Festival and TV audiences who enjoyed the former will crave second helpings.
Yang's debut is largely devoted to understanding her father Gongsun's ideological convictions, which led him to send his three teenage sons to North Korea in the '70s. "Sona" pays more attention to her brothers' families. It records four trips Yang made to Pyongyang from 1995 to 2004, the most significant one being the first reunion of three generations in 30 years.
Yang slips in moments that cast a cloud over their seemingly jovial exchanges, like father and son taking a stroll with "incomprehensible expressions on their faces" or Yang's sister-in-law singing a mournful song expressing a son's indebtedness to his mother. (The irony that Mrs. Yang's regular parcels have been her children's lifeline cannot be missed).
The most telling instant comes during Yang's visit in 2004 to report about Gongsun's stroke. Her nephews recite rehearsed "get well soon" messages for the camera, but when it comes to the youngest boy's turn, he is speechless, tears streaming from his eyes.
The unifying figure among the scattered footage is Yang's niece Sona. Filmed at ages five, six, nine and 13, she is initially represented as Yang's mirror image, growing up with a dual cultural identity. Her childhood seems carefree despite losing her mother and being spoon-fed propaganda songs, until a reality check comes when she walks away from the camera into her school, and Yang comments that Sona is returning to "her own reality" (from which Yang is barred).
Neither the cheap-and-cheerful home movie quality, nor frequent voiceovers impede the absorbing content or the extremely rare footage of Pyongyang. Those who have seen "Dear Pyongyang" will recognize overlapping material, and perhaps find "Sona" less candid and probing. Then again, Yang must be tremendously cautious for her relatives' sake. Beneath the ad lib style is selective information requiring one to read between the lines, like the correlation between her depressive brother's death and a law banning medicine parcels.