In one emblematic scene in Kim Tae-kyun’s film “Crossing,” the young protagonist Joon runs after the truck that is carrying away his dead mother. As he struggles and fails to catch up to the moving vehicle, he begins to pant. His shoes are in tatters; the afternoon sun hangs over a dusty North Korean landscape.
This scene is one of many that exemplify the genuinely sad but wholly unoriginal feel that characterizes much of “Crossing.” The movie provides an emotional and vivid portrayal of the tragedies faced by one North Korean family, but its project would be more effective if the dramatic scenes and heavy symbolism were more subtle and more imaginative.
“Crossing”—filmed in China, Korea, and Mongolia—tells the story of Yong-soo (Cha In-pyo), a former soccer player now living in poverty in a North Korean coal mining town with his pregnant wife and their young son. When Yong-soo’s wife—who is mysteriously left nameless—falls ill with tuberculosis, exacerbated by malnutrition, Yong-soo makes the difficult decision to attempt an illegal crossing into China to obtain the medicines his wife so desperately needs.
In traditional tragic form, Joon is left alone to care for his ailing mother, but she soon dies while Yong-soo is in China. Joon departs to find his father, not knowing that Yong-soo has already been relocated to South Korea by a relief organization.
Certain scenes of the movie elicit real emotion—horror, disgust, pity—but these are few and far between. One scene in which Joon excitedly goes to feed his pet dog the leftover bones from an exceptionally good meal, only to discover that his father has just served the dog for dinner particularly registers the family’s desperation in a way that is genuinely painful.
But the movie as a whole would benefit from a paring down of its overly dramatic scenes. Its inherently emotional storyline—compounded by the fact that this is a dramatization, not a documentary—makes exaggeration not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the film’s power. A frantic escape scene featuring Yong-soo is filmed in slow motion, presumably to increase the tension and drama of the moment. It comes across as overdone and totally lacking in suspense. The film also employs its fair share of flashback-driven montages, a superfluous technique that does nothing to advance the story.
Attempts at symbolism in the movie are also heavy-handed. The rain, for instance, is referenced by Joon on multiple occasions as a representation of life, hope, and happiness. One of the movie’s more cringe-inducing lines involves Joon’s discussion of what he hopes heaven will be like: “I hope it still rains there.”
This is not the only mention of Christian themes by the characters, who seem to grow more religious as the film progresses. When Yong-soo discovers that his wife has died—a message inexplicably relayed to him by an unnamed woman he has hired to investigate the whereabouts of his family—he asks, “Does Jesus Christ live only in South Korea?” He goes on to question whether he is allowed to cry if he feels his “heart ripping apart inside.”
The movie’s one unequivocal asset is its cinematography. Beautiful images of Joon roaming the barren desert beneath a multicolored sunset serve to redeem some of the movie’s lesser moments. When the boy is later caught trying to sneak across the Chinese border, he is sent to a youth labor camp that exists entirely in shades of brown—a choice that is striking and bleak, if not subtle.
Unfortunately, nothing can fully redeem Kim’s lack of originality in crafting the film. A fictionalized film should provide room for artistic innovation, but there is little imagination in “Crossing.” And with a story as inherently stark as this one, every clichéd flourish only distances the audience from what could have been a beautiful and moving drama.