Sunday, April 23, 2006

No sleep tonight - Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

This is just critic-hostile scheduling. You show a movie at 8:30 Saturday night, with the next show at Sunday noon, and I'm supposed to get a review written in time for it to be useful? Even if I wasn't going to try and see a midnight movie afterward, and taking for granted that probably no other member of the press attending is committed to helping their younger brother move the next morning, that's what you call a tight deadline. I know, that's what daily newspaper reporters and actual conscientious bloggers have to manage every day, but I'm just an enthusiastic amateur with a day job.

--sigh-- Damn that press pass and that excellent movie for creating a sense of obligation to push this thing. Because it's a really fantastic film, and on top of that, the IFFB screenings have not just the directors, but the brothers of two of the abductees mentioned in the movie who have stopped in Boston on the way to testify before Congress about North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens. So there's the opportunity for a truly great Q&A here, as well.

Anyway - Coolidge Corner, 12pm. Be there if you can.

And now, the full review as posted on HBS/EFC:

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

I'm not doing the thing. I'm not saying that Abduction is one of the best movies I've seen in the past year, and certainly the best documentary, just because it has important subject matter. I hate when people do that, whether they be critics, award voters, or just plain snobs. I'm saying Abduction is a great film because it tells a fascinating story in a suspenseful, exciting way, delivering the kind of emotional gut punches we go to the movies for.

If you're going in cold, it starts out like a fairly straightforward cold-case kidnapping story. On November 15, 1977, thirteen year-old Megumi Yokota and her best friend were walking home from badminton practice and went their separate ways. The friend comes home safely; Megumi vanishes as if into thin air. She's initially thought to be a runaway, though her family is at a loss as to why she would leave home. A couple years later, a crime reporter gets a tip that something strange is happening along Japan's west coast: Young couples in their early twenties are disappearing, though one pair escapes. Megumi's abduction isn't thought to be connected, as it doesn't fit tte pattern. It's not until 1997 that the truth is confirmed: Megumi and the others were kidnapped by North Korean spies and shipped in tiny containers across the Sea of Japan to train NK agents to better impersonate Japanese.

This sounds like the fanciful stuff of spy dramas, but it's very real. We hear from An, a North Korean defector who met Megumi in 1989, and it becomes a huge story in Japanese politics, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi eventually pressed into cutting off humanitarian aid to North Korea unless the abductees are acknowledged and returned. It's strongly suggested that it would be grounds for a military strike if such things weren't forbidden by the Japanese constitution.

Although heads of state and defectors and other spies obviously play big roles in this story, filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim focus on the stories of those left behind. This is, after all, billed as "The Megumi Yokota Story", so we spend a lot of time with her parents, Shigeru and Sakie. They are ordinary people - a banker and a housewife with two younger children, and as torturous as losing one's thirteen-year-old daughter is under any circumstances, the revelation of the circumstances behind her kidnapping thrust them into the public eye in the late 1990s, a time when they should have been enjoying their retirement rather than campaigning for the government to search out their daughter. Sukie becomes religious, finding inspiration in the book of Job, while Shigeru has the opposite reaction; how could a benevolent God allow such things to happen? The mother of another abductee has a complete nervous breakdown, and though we're given relatively brief glances of her and her husband (who was also in very ill health by the time this film was in production, and died during its filming), it's very unsettling to see what a horrific effect the disappearance of a child, even a grown one, can have on a parent's life. And then there's Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister Rumiko disappeared along with her boyfriend in 1978, who eventually quits his job to devote himself full-time to searching for her, even running for Parliament to try and force the issue. We feel terrible for all those left behind, and understand why they can't let go, even when it would be the sensible way to spend what time they have left.

We understand this because Kim and Sheridan are almost cruel in how they slowly dole out information. Though this film runs a short eighty-five minutes, it feels much longer. They jump back and forth in time to give the audience a sense of the scale of the story, and draw out the listing of the names and fates of the victims with suspenseful music to work the audience's nerves, and then, even though it feels like the film has gone on an hour and a half and the credits should be about to roll, there's more movie left than you might expect - after all, to believe that this is a definitive ending would involve accepting what North Korea says, and would you trust Kim Jong-Il if it was your missing family member? Didn't think so. Still, it means that the last act is so full of acting against the evidence as to almost be painful - we almost want Matsumoto and the others to drop it and get on with their own lives, but suspect (hope) that we'd be just as determined in their situation.

Even more impressive is that the filmmakers don't really have that much material to work with where their title character is concerned. 1977 is before there were many consumer video cameras, so we're working from grainy stills, mainly, and not very many. We get reminiscences from her family and friends, and a tape of her singing a solo in the school choir during her elementary school graduation ceremony. We see even less of the other abductees. And yet we do get an idea of what Megumi's like, and what her disappearance means to those who loved her. It's a lot done with relatively little.

Which is part of what makes this film so great - as big a deal as these abductions are, and how much information is out there, there's relatively little ready-made footage for a film, so it's a good job to see it put together like this. Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan make a big, sprawling story affecting on a personal, emotional level - and isn't that the best thing a documentary can do?

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