Talking to Joon Bai, the man behind the first U.S.-North Korean coproduction

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From The Other Side of the Mountain
  • From The Other Side of the Mountain
The Peace on Earth Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Cultural Center, presenting free screenings of documentaries and fiction films that "raise awareness of peace, nonviolence, social justice, and an eco-balanced world." Surely the most remarkable movie in the lineup is The Other Side of the Mountain, the first fiction film produced in North Korea by an American citizen. It screens tomorrow at 4 PM with writer-producer Joon Bai in attendance. The film tells a love story between a South Korean man and the North Korean woman who takes him in when he's wounded during the Korean War. They're separated when the war ends, but they spend the next few decades trying to reunite. Their saga sounds like the stuff of melodrama, but a final title explains that their experience is depressingly common: by one estimation, over 10 million Koreans have been unable to unite with family members since the war. The other day I spoke with Bai, who was born in North Korea but has lived in the United States since 1959, about how the film came to be. His story is at least as fascinating as the movie he made, so I've decided to publish our hour-long conversation nearly in full. The first part follows the jump; I'll post the rest next week.

Ben Sachs: You're in your 70s, and The Other Side of the Mountain is the first film that you've written and produced. How did you come to make a film at your age?

Joon Bai: It's a long story. I came to Chicago [from North Korea] as an exchange student in 1959, thanks to the help of Senator Fulbright and his exchange student program. I studied in Chicago and then at the University of Missouri, where I got a degree in engineering. Then I came to Lake Zurich and worked at a company that's now part of ExxonMobil; the first home I owned was in Rolling Meadows.

But as to how this [movie] started. I was a good engineer, worked diligently, and I created my own company in 1983. One time around 1996, I was coming home, listening to the radio, and I heard that there were close to a million North Koreans who had died of starvation that year. That was really shocking to me.

You know, I'm a Christian and I learned from the Bible about famines like this in ancient times, but I never heard about anything like that in today's society. As wealthy as we are, there are still young children and elderly people who die of starvation. That news stayed with me—I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat.

I found a way to go to North Korea in 1997. The first thing I did was go to the place where I was born. It's in the northeastern part of North Korea, border-to-border with China and far away from Pyongyang. It's a very cold, Siberian climate. The land is bare and the rice paddies are very small. The impact [of the famine] was worse there than in any other place. I went into the orphanages, I saw these kids, and I just dropped down and started crying. I could not believe that this could exist in such a civilized society.

I started to do humanitarian work, traveling there over 50 times. And traveling to North Korea is not easy. You have to go through Seoul to China and then fly over. The U.S. State Department would not let me go there either. So I had no passport, no North Korean visa stamp, just a piece of paper.

But the North Koreans saw me giving unconditional care to them. I bought [the villagers] rice and corn and bread-making machines; I worked with the children and stayed with them. And for them to see one of their own who left town but came back with lots of money, lots of aid, it made [the villagers] start to think, "What kind of country is America? How did a man go there and come back a rich and loving person?"

The North Korean government was not providing these services because they would rather have resources for the military—you know, the missiles and atomic bomb testing and all that. I have to be very careful about what I say because I still work with the North Korean side, but I would not say that their leaders are so inhumane that they would let their people starve to death. I really don't know how they feel; I don't want to get into that. All I know is the people I saw for 15 years. These are my people—they live in the place I was born.

As I get older, this yearning for my home country gets stronger. So I'm able to do this—I have the resources, I have a successful business, and that's what I do. And while I'm doing all of this, I start to write about it. I like writing; I thought I'd keep a diary of my work in North Korea. What else can I do? I'm on 20-hour flights and sitting in airports for the whole day—that's when I start writing. And when I was writing, I thought, "Maybe I should write a screenplay and make a movie."

The villagers loved [the idea]. But they said, "We only have one camera, but it makes noise because it's not a sync [sound] camera. And we don't have electricity for equipment. We don't have gasoline to take actors here."

I said, "Look, if you want to show to the world what's really in your heart, what you want to cry out—You're usually so silent; you're told not to speak—I want to give you a chance to speak it through this movie. I don't know if my government will sanction it, I don't know if your government will sanction it, but let's try. Let's try and speak for peace so that we can help you. Maybe some great leader some day will understand that not all of you are bad guys."

I'm committed. I only have a few years left in my life, so I will do everything I can to speak for them.

So you shot the film in the region where you've done your humanitarian work?

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Actually we shot in major cities—Pyongyang, of course; and Sinuiju, which is at the northern tip of North Korea, near the border with China; and Kaesong, which is a beautiful city, a historic city, like Tokyo. Seventy percent of the film was shot in the mountains, because the story is set in a small village in the mountains. We shot a lot of the film in the winter, and we didn't stay in hotels because we didn't have funds for the staff and actors to stay there. So we stayed in farmers' houses in a five-mile radius of where we shot.

Korean farmers' houses in the winter are not very comfortable. There's no electricity, the toilet is outside, and they barely feed themselves. But in the mornings, they always gave us something: sweet potatoes or corn or seaweed—no meat, of course. But if they put the food outside, it would freeze; so they kept it between their clothes and their bodies so it would be warm. That's how they fed us.

This was the first sync-sound film shot in North Korea. I sent for the right camera and lens. The sync sound is wonderful! But we didn't have enough electricity for lighting. They don't have power lines in the mountains, so we had to have a generator. A generator, even 20 or 30 feet away, makes noise, and here we were, trying to make a sync-sound film.

We didn't have any [special] effects or stuntmen. The lead actress cut her forehead during an explosion, because glass shattered on her. The lead actor almost broke his leg. I hope film critics see the movie and see all that, the people behind it and the purpose.

Some people will look at it and say it has some Communist propaganda. I don't think so. It's a love story, and I think audiences are intelligent enough to recognize that. And after they see this film, perhaps they will look at their neighbors a little differently. Unless we have courage and compassion and reach out to our neighbors, we will not have peace. America is a loving country. We can make peace all over the world.

Read part two of this interview.

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