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Ben Sachs: Were you raised as a Christian in Korea or did you discover Christianity in the United States?
Joon Bai: When I left North Korea, I was only 12-and-a-half years old. The second World War ended when I was eight years old. In those days there were no Christians [in North Korea]. And when my family came to South Korea, we were refugees. We were struggling so hard to feed ourselves that we didn't think to go to a church. I became a Christian when I came to America.
There's no mention of religion in The Other Side of the Mountain . . .
Really? I don't remember hearing any.
Well, the biggest challenge I had in making the film was [dealing with] the difference in ideology. [The North Korean government] did not allow me to make anything with religious issues. So, my film tells a story that [says] after death, there's a second life. They didn't want that in. I had to fight and fight, but I convinced them to let me do that.
They would not allow me to say that a North Korean girl could fall in love with a South Korean man. "That's impossible! There's no such thing!" That was another challenge, convincing them to say it was OK to do that.
How did you do it?
I told them, "I hope this movie will ultimately lead to the unification of your two countries." When they heard it was a unification story, they agreed to go ahead, because they want unification too. So they let me tell my story, but there was a lot of compromise. So if you see it, and you sense a little "red flavor" in it, just know that I could not do it all my way over there. I leave it to your discretion. I think when people see the film, they'll see what I'm saying.
What I found interesting about your depiction of the North Korean village is that it could be read as Christian or Communist. You know, the characters say it's their responsibility to care for everyone in their village as though they're all one big family. Like you say, that line has a Communist flavor, but it's also a tenet of Christianity. It's open-ended.
There are a lot of things that I had to edit out, to keep the movie that way. Like, the government wanted to make sure their leader's name was in there; I was able to get that out . . . But there were 20, 30 times [during the making of the movie] where compromise was hard. I'd be sitting in my hotel, left alone, for a whole week and officials refused to talk to me. That's their way of saying, "Go home and don't come back."
Who in the government were you dealing with?
They have a lot of circles. There's someone in the Ministry of Art and Science [that I talked to], then he reported to someone on top of him, who reported to someone on top of him, and that person reported to the Supreme Commander. But in the circle I dealt with, there were screenplay people, critics, propaganda people, and security people; it's not just [about] making films. If one of those people says "This is not acceptable," then your idea is not acceptable.
I was the only human being on earth who could make this film, because of my [North Korean] birth, my humanitarian work, and my nature as a person. Now that the movie's done, I have to promote the movie—send out trailers and do interviews and things like that. But before, no one knew I was working on a humanitarian project in North Korea. My church group knew, but not in detail—I couldn't even talk to them about it. Because if I did that, I could not effectively do the humanitarian work that I do. If I'm associated with any South Korean agencies or pro-South Korean group, the North Korean government will not let me do my job or make my movie. I have to be very, very neutral.
Have you presented the film in North Korea?
[The government] is waiting to see. I might show it in the summer or later in the year, after it goes through the festival circuit. One thing I'm afraid of is that it gets into the hands of people in China and they make a copy. There's a chance that people will edit it and make it critical [of North Korea]. I have to be very in control of how this film is seen and where it is seen.
Have you presented the film anywhere other than Chicago?
We had our first screening at the Hawaii Film Festival. It was highly, highly successful—it sold out! You know, there's quite a big Korean-American population in Hawaii, so I thought the theater would be filled with Korean people, but it was not. There were Japanese-Americans, Native Hawaiian-Americans, American-Americans . . . [laughs] Every race was represented, and the question-answer session was very exciting. I felt like George Clooney—people wanted to take their picture with me! I guess that's what happens when you spend six years working on a movie.
But really, that is not my purpose. My brother lives in North Korea, and my cousin has a cousin living there . . . and we haven't seen each other yet. This separation—keeping people away from their loved ones—is one of the most painful things. It's a human tragedy. I would give up so much if I could only see my mother who I left more than 50 years ago. And there are almost 10 million [Korean] people who can't see members of their own families. So I want to ask the question, Can we do something about it?
What would you propose as a solution to this problem?
You know, I am not a politician. But I think the U.S. should be willing to sign a peace treaty with North Korea. We cannot talk peace unless we have a peace treaty. I do not see why that would hurt us. Secondly, what we have done in the last 20 years did not stop North Korea from making an atomic bomb. The economic sanctions we put on them only made them make the bomb sooner. And in the meantime, millions of people died of starvation.
My thinking is, Help the people unconditionally. One of the times I was in North Korea, a person said to me, "Mr. Bai, why do you live in such an evil country?" And he likes me, he feels he can talk to me. So I said, "Mister, it's not an evil country. If I come back with all this food and try to help you, don't you think the country has allowed me to do that? Isn't that a good example that it's not a bad country?"
North Koreans think that after the colonization [efforts] of Japan and seeing the Russians in and out of the northern part of the country, they think that America wants to destroy them. Firstly with the sanctions, and secondly with the [military] exercises in South Korea where they can see and hear them. They feel they're surrounded by this power that's very dangerous.
So I'm hoping that our country can look at the situation and not just send Dennis Rodman, but a better person, someone who can talk to people. As a Christian, I feel that whatever we do has to be founded on peace and love. God has commanded us to love our neighbors unconditionally. If we could do that, there would be no atomic bombs or sanctions.
I have a few more years to work for this cause. I have my business to rely on, I have my wife to support me emotionally, so they enable me to go on.
What is your business?
In the 80s I was out in California as a western regional sales manager for selling polyethylene film. In 1983 I decided to start my own business, called Trans-Western Polymers. A private-label plastic trash bag is my product. We have a factory in California; in 1995 we started another factory in eastern Pennsylvania. In the Chicago area, we sell at Safeway stores and at Costco. Do you know Costco?
If you haven't shopped at Costco, I encourage you to do so. Wonderful, wonderful place!