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Reclaiming the Negative [Mike Beech, UK/South Korea, 2020]

Since the Korean war ended in 1953, approximately 31,000 North Koreans have defected, taking the perilous journey across the southern border. Such numbers are a stark indictment of citizens’ desperation to flee one of the world’s most barbaric and oppressive political regimes. In Reclaiming the Negative, we hear from one such defector, Eun-Ju Kim, and from the photographer, Tim Franco, whose portraits have helped to capture incredible stories of courage like hers. Together they offer a devastating insight into a journey borne from desperation, inspired by a longing for freedom.

Loosely split into two parts, Reclaiming the Negative begins with an interview with Eun-Ju Kim, whose own father died of malnutrition within the totalitarian state’s poverty-ridden borders. The second half details the work of French-Polish photographer, Tim Franco, as he outlines the themes present in his work, and the inspirations behind his decision to take large format portraits of North Korean defectors. Hers is a story unique and shocking, the work of a political regime laid bare in this most illuminating of interview segments. His is a fascinating step-by-step guide of a photographic process that revolves around the development of Polaroid negatives. The ghostly results offer a fitting parallel that, in his words, communicate the simple fact that, “North Koreans in South Korea are not supposed to exist.”

Throughout, director Mike Beech is careful to elevate the importance of Franco’s photographic process amidst the film’s interweaving stories. The very first shots meticulously detail the setting up of Franco’s specialised large format camera, a complicated and exacting process, alluding to the onerous development he will have to undergo for his final Polaroids. The extreme close-ups used feel incredibly intimate, the shot choice mirroring the deep insight that portraits themselves aim to capture. Adeptly, Beech juggles his task of introducing us not only to Kim and Franco, but also to the specialised nature of the work that has brought them together.

Throughout it all, the pacing of the documentary is carefully balanced. Upon the culmination of Kim’s interview segment, we rest silently – Kim wandering through the streets, the backgrounds behind her blurred, and our focus solely on her. This continuous shot captures Kim gracefully in profile, affording a much welcomed variation of angles, so much of the documentary dealing solely with faces captured in portrait. Here, Beech allows the viewer to take pause, allowing for Kim’s words to sink in, and for vital introspection to take place.

Beech takes similar care when closing off Franco’s section, thus providing a coda for the piece as a whole. Cutting to black, we flick leisurely through six of Franco’s other portraits. Theirs are stories unheard, yet through their status as defectors, we feel their connection to Kim, shared experiences encouraging us to read into the faces before us, teasing out histories previously hidden. The atmospheric music that guides our finale is contemplative, as is the speed with which we leisurely flick through the portraits. Rightfully, at the close, we rest on our final portrait, Eun-Ju Kim – the shattering impact of her story the most vital takeaway.

To Reclaiming the Negative’s viewers, Kim’s shocking revelations of early life as a citizen in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and of her subsequent journey to escape, will likely prove unshakeable. The details of her lived experience are undeniably appalling. Anecdotes of extreme famine, defectors being caught and executed, and of early life as a beggar on the streets, are utterly devoid of sentimentalism. Instead they are presented as simple facts, albeit facts from a life utterly unimaginable to those without first-hand experience of the DPRK. Such fascinating insights make for a truly compelling narrative journey.

As a subject of our fascination and respect, Eun-Ju Kim is well deserving of every second of screen time she commands. The relatively soothing nature of Franco’s section, comes to provide us with a remedying tonic for the force of Kim’s. As a pairing they are well chosen, leaving us satisfied with our short-term stay as voyeurs of their lives and livelihoods.

Reclaiming the Negative is a film certain to leave a lasting impression on its viewers. Parties interested to learn more of Eun-Ju Kim’s fascinating journey can purchase her book, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, whilst those charmed by Franco’s photographic chronicle can seek out Unperson, published through the Magenta Foundation. With a relatively short runtime of twelve and a half minutes, it is unquestionable that Reclaiming the Negative’s insights are manifold, and its impact colossal.


'Reclaiming the Negative' was part of the Official Selection at Short Focus Film Festival 2020.


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