マダム・ベー（原題） 「Madamu Be- (Gendai)」
Running Time: 72 mins.
Director/Writer: Jero Yun
“Mrs. B., A North Korean Woman” focuses on the titular Mrs. B (full name never given), a woman who escaped across the border from North Korea into China with the intention of getting a job for a short period of time and sending money back to her husband and two boys. This documentary, shot over the course of three years, reveals that things didn’t quite go according to plan since she was sold into marriage to the son of a Chinese farming family and willingly spent around a decade in China. What happened?
It seems that she had found a place called home with her in-laws and actually gets along with them really well. Not only that, she has become a people-smuggler herself, helping others, including her old family, escape to South Korea. When we first meet her she is actually in the middle of a smuggling run, something we see via a shaky handheld camera filming her as she takes a woman and her child through China by bus during the night. It is sobering footage considering this could be a life-or-death situation especially with the jarring soundscape of screeching wheels, slamming doors, heavy engines roaring and a constantly wailing baby. Above this din, however, is Mrs. B’s commanding voice as she gives orders and berates unseen people over her phone, guides her charges around and haggles over the price of defecting from North Korea and which routes to take. We witness this and we wonder just how much should really be shown on screen, trade secrets and all. Will North Korean agents use this in some way against her?
Maybe such things don’t concern her. The woman we see is confident, a go-getter, she makes deals and she’s tough. Despite having been sold to the farming family by people smugglers she defies any stereotypical victim role and has become, if one were to be very critical, a bit of a predator herself. Having seen first-hand the operations and the potential to make money in the business, the entrepreneur in her aims to make a profit from smuggling. She openly talks about the prices that people fetch as if they are products. She is shown selling the sexual services of other North Korean women in karaoke bars and at one point she even admits to running crystal meth on the side. So no, far from being a victim, she is a born survivor and profits off others.
Despite the harsh words used in the preceding paragraphs, there’s another side to her, a softness she displays when she talks about her two families and this mixture of character traits makes her a more complex character to watch especially as her interactions with both families help construct that character and it is here that director Jero Yun plays a good game of juxtapositions.
Mrs. B. seems right at home on the Chinese farm, helping out with the harvest, and it is clear that her new husband respects her and they have a bond. That bond extends to his mother who supports Mrs B with money even though she cannot afford it. Yun carefully observes her and the less involved father during quiet moments when nobody says anything. It is interesting to look at their lined and craggy faces as they listen to the gory details of the dangerous actions of their son and daughter-in-law. One cannot help wondering what they think? Perhaps since both are over 80 and both have lived through major events such as the Cultural Revolution they are resigned to fate. The father merely sneaks off for a smoke or a drink but the mother is amusingly forthright about things and seems as equally capable as her daughter-in-law in handling herself.
This is contrasted with the treatment Mrs. B experiences at the hands of her first family after she makes her way to South Korea to rejoin them. The journey itself involves an epic land-based trek from China to a refugee centre in Thailand which has a profound effect on Mrs. B who loses control of her fate as she transitions, once again, from being a smuggler to being smuggled herself along with other North Koreans (one of whom is a new mother who carries a wailing baby in a nice coincidental bit of mirroring with the start of the film).
This sequence is something that could have been explored more. The filmmakers take on the same arduous journey through jungles and cities and during this time they get glimpses of Mrs B’s emotions in stressful moments but this potentially fascinating period is kept short, perhaps necessarily so due to legal and safety restrictions in recording the trek. It acts more like a bridge to events in South Korea which are a cruelly ironic juxtaposition with her earlier situation.
When we reunite with her she has changed from confident woman to being homesick for China and disillusioned with life in South Korea. She lives with her family in an apartment and has a job as a cleaner but faces scrutiny from security forces and her teenage sons who, despite adopting materialistic lifestyles and applying make-up to look like K-pop stars, cannot mask that they burn with resentment and anger over having grown up without her and having experienced rough interrogations at the hands of South Korean intelligence agents. Rather harsh emotions are dredged up through honest direct to camera interviews brimming with anger, which Yun intercuts with the reality of Mrs. B’s situation as a brow-beaten and quiet woman. She allows her children to disrespect her, only speaking honestly when not in their presence about her future. She is no longer a commanding presence.
Victims of global politics, this family unit seems riven by turmoil and no amount of physical wealth or K-Pop which surrounds them can plug the gaps giving lie to the idea that defecting to the south will automatically lead to happiness. Audiences may guess this will be the end result but this still essentially ruins any positive ending that could have been had and it is almost like karma has hit Mrs B for the exploitation she engaged in earlier and we leave her with the startling revelation that she is desperately unhappy.
If the film has any short-comings, it’s that the story feels like it doesn’t do justice to the epicness of her journey and the larger than life character that Mrs. B is. Maybe this is a backhanded compliment, but what is shown of her life on screen is fascinating and it is impossible not to want to get more of the story. It feels like the filmmakers are capable of doing it, adding an insight and information into the larger issue of North Korean defectors and having Mrs. B’s story acting as a through-line to keep audiences hooked. Despite this, the film is engaging and viewers will also wonder just what has happened to Mrs. B in the intervening period between the end of the shoot and now. Did she make it back to China? Has she found happiness and control again? In a world of endless fictional super hero movie franchises, Mrs. B’s true tale of guts and determination is one that would truly be worth a sequel and one hopes that Yun Jero is there to capture it.
This is no hagiography, this is an unvarnished portrait of someone with a strong will to live and director Jero Yun shows the reality of her lifestyle, shows her ruthlessness and determination and in this way he defies the predictable victim narrative but she has to keep on searching to find true freedom and this makes the documentary interesting.