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VIFF 2023: A Tour Guide sheds light on plight of North Korean defectors building new lives in South Korea

A Tour Guide still
Han-young (Seol Lee) discovers in A Tour Guide that life's problems don't end after escaping North Korea.

A new South Korean film, A Tour Guide, opens with a young woman answering a key question during a licensing examination: “What should a tour guide-interpreter never do?”

Han-young, played brilliantly by Seol Lee (Thunderbird, Waiting for Rain), responds that tour guides shouldn’t be unkind or force people to buy goods. She adds that they should never lend their licences to others and they shouldn’t violate any laws.

But unlike many other South Korean tour guides, Han-young was born and raised in North Korea. She defected to South Korea via China.

Since 1998, more than 33,000 North Korean defectors have moved to South Korea. But the challenges that they face are not widely known in the West.

Writer-director Eun-mi Kwak addresses this knowledge gap with her debut feature, which will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival. In Kwak’s slowly unfolding character study, viewers learn about how North Koreans aren’t always warmly embraced by their South Korean neighbours. It doesn’t help that Han-young is unfamiliar with the country’s work culture.

As a result, this defector often finds herself alone in a strange land. Moreover, she faces another monumental task: finding her brother, another North Korean defector who’s gone missing.

Like others from North Korea, Han-young has a government “watcher”, a personal protection officer who repeatedly calls seeking information. Is this watcher putting her under surveillance or there to help? It’s not clear at the outset.

Watch the trailer for A Tour Guide.

A Tour Guide generates empathy

South Koreans can easily spot North Koreans by their accents. And Han-young sometimes finds herself “othered” as a result. But because she speaks passable Mandarin and knows a great deal about China, she’s popular with Chinese tourists.

However, when tensions increase between the governments in Beijing and Seoul, China slashes the number of tourist visas. This creates tremendous stress for Han-young. Without a South Korean education, her entire livelihood depends on these visitors.

Meanwhile, her boss doesn’t seem overly concerned about that. He blithely suggests that if she can’t stay with the company, she should just read some books and travel.

There’s lots to like about A Tour Guide. Not only does it provide insights into the North Korean experience in South Korea, it also offers a visual tour of some of the country’s popular sites. Most importantly, this film builds empathy for a small minority of the South Korean population whose plight has gone unnoticed in the West.

Those who risk their lives to escape the tyranny of Kim Jong-un deserve better. Let’s hope that Kwak’s film stimulates some discussion, which leads to a more humanitarian response.

The Vancouver International Film Festival will present two screenings of A Tour Guide in Korean with English subtitles and hearing assistance at International Village 10. Director Eun-mi Kwak will be in attendance at both events. The first is at 6:30 p.m. on Monday (October 2). The second is at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday (October 4). For more information and tickets, visit the VIFF website.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.