Where is home?

For Ryun-hee Kim it’s in North Korea, where her family she resides. To us, on the outside looking in, it is beyond comprehension that anyone who has escaped the oppressive hermit kingdom would desire to return. Unable to pay for her medical treatments in China, a smuggler tricks Ryun-hee into traveling to South Korea with promises of easy money. Unaware of the political strife happening outside her country, Ryun-hee doesn’t know of the policy to bring in as many defectors from the north as possible, and that returning is an impossibility. Trapped in a country that doesn’t want her, a brief visit in search of medical care turns into a years long struggle to return home. 

Clocking just under two hours, SHADOW FLOWERS is a comprehensive, if slightly too long depiction of Ryun-hee’s strife. The repeated failures become aggravating to watch, even as they’re important for us to understand just how desperate the situation is. A heartbreakingly humane look at ordinary people caught between two nations, it is a powerful depiction of a world where falling through the cracks of bureaucracy is as good as a death sentence.

Beginning on an unnamed beach, Ryun-hee contacts the director from hiding.

She’s been unreachable for days. I had to move far away to make this call, she says. They’re listening. Monitored on a daily basis, her attempts to contact her family are a constant risk. Years go by between messages, as their shared lives become snapshots shared in secret. The tiniest error could jeopardize all their lives. Her days are punctuated with incessant pestering of her parole officers, each with a vested interest to keep her on a short leash. With great tenderness, director Seung-Jun Yi allows Ryun-hee to express in her own words her pain and yearning.

This is a hard film to watch, filled with Kafkaesque and Orwellian nightmares with scenes of unimaginable heartbreak. Every step forward is a Pyrrhic victory that brings Ryun-hee no closer to home. Unable to give up, her plans turn increasingly desperate. One operation sees her trying to sneak into the bus of the North Korean hockey team, hoping that they’d just transport her back home. It’s easy for us to see the folly and gaps in this plan, but we’re fueled by desperation beyond imagining. 

Even worse are the scenes where Ryun-hee’s supposed allies reveal their true motives.

Allying herself with unificationists, in private her home is mocked for their strict upbringing and societal unity. Elsewhere she shares a home with a former spy, now living in seclusion. There is an unspoken expectation that he might dream they’d just share a life together, something that Ryun-hee doesn’t humor even remotely. At every turn the world around her serves as a reminder just how alone she truly is. 

Alongside Ryun-hee’s struggle, SHADOW FLOWERS offers an insightful glimpse into the mindset of South Koreans regarding defectors. The fear, misconception, and propaganda prevalent in everyday life is staggering. While it ignores the long-term effects of uncertainty and war between two countries, SHADOW FLOWERS does an impressive job of capturing the moment. We understand, even if we don’t condone, why South Korea is so unwilling to let Ryun-hee return. We’re never given reasons why she can’t go home, just that it’s an impossibility. There are very few people of power in the film, and a pervasive sense that nobody is controlling this ship is everywhere.

How Ryun-hee has survived so long feels still like a mystery. I couldn’t. There is incredible strength in her battle against forces that don’t have faces. Her struggle extending year after year hurt me in ways I couldn’t imagine to endure in reality. Fleeting glimpses back home through chat programs are as uplifting and emotionally draining as you could imagine. Ryun-hee holds nothing back; she bares every piece of her soul on camera. Why wouldn’t she? She has nothing left to lose. 

This documentary is dedicated to the millions of families separated between the North and the South. 

Ironically, Ryun-hee is not alone.