Photo Courtesy of HotDocs.

HotDocs23: “A Mother, Youngsoon” Review

A Mother, Youngsoon is a deeply personal portrayal of a mother and son. While commenting on larger geopolitical issues, this remains a personal reflection of the relationship between these two. This laser focus allows the documentary to provide commentary on an experience that is misunderstood by so much of the world. This story symbolizes the hopes and struggles of so many.  

This documentary tells the story of two people who escaped North Korea and have created a new life in South Korea. This is an inside look at the day-to-day life of those who have escaped North Korea and how they are adjusting to their new lives. Despite Youngsoon’s effort to stay connected with her son Sosa, they drift further and further apart. 

A Mother, Youngsoon poses an interesting question. There’s no one sensible who would disagree with the sentiment that it is a good thing that these two are no longer living in North Korea. However, this documentary takes pains to point out that it is no easy journey. The fact that this journey often comes at such a high cost is proof that people who even attempt it are full of unimaginable strength. 

While there’s a broader cultural commentary, this story remains very grounded. This is a universal story of the challenges that exist in relationships between parents and their children. Parents may want the best for their children even while their children want to go their own ways. It’s both fascinating and validating to see these emotions amplified in times of indescribable stress.

It would have been interesting to hear more about the family that these two left behind in North Korea. Obviously, with security in mind, this deeper dive probably isn’t possible. Still, it would have been interesting to have the additional context regarding where this individual story fits into a broader picture. The case is made that this family is representative of many who leave North Korea. Hearing similar or contrasting voices would have added additional depth. 

This documentary does give an up close and personal look at what it’s like to leave such a repressive regime. It’s clear that, in many ways, South Korea as a nation is often ill-equipped to deal with North Korean refugees. While each family has its own dynamics and struggles, there are very obviously some common struggles that can be addressed on a systemic level. This could have functioned as a call to action to provide greater support to these people at the most stressful point in their lives. 

A Mother, Youngsoon is a sometimes difficult watch, but it’s an important one. This is an important reflection on the immigrant/refugee experience. While these people may be grateful for their new lives, it makes the challenges they face no less difficult. Witnessing such an emotional journey requires respect and humility. The subjects of this documentary are allowed to be their flawed selves, which makes it that much easier to relate to them. Hopefully, this is merely the beginning of a new journey for this family. Whatever the future holds, the courage they have shown so far is inspiring. 

A Mother, Youngsoon aired at the 2023 HotDocs Festival

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