Shadow Flowers


Approximately 33,000 North Korean defectors currently live in South Korea, many of them having fled their homeland in search of food, freedom, and a better life. However, several people whose families remain north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) have experienced not only separation anxiety (being far removed from husbands, wives, children, etc.) but also culture shock, discrimination, and unemployment upon relocating to a fiercely competitive, capitalistic society. According to estimates put out by South Korea’s Ministry of Reunification, because of their “failure” to fully assimilate, twenty-eight defectors have repatriated to North Korea via an unofficial route (by way of China). Moreover, in a recent survey, 20% of all interviewed defectors expressed a desire to go back to their country of birth. Directed by the Oscar-nominated documentarian Yi Seung-jun (a guest of the ACT Human Rights Film Festival during its first year), Shadow Flowers is an eye-opening film that follows the everyday travails of a middle-aged North Korean woman, Kim Ryun-hee, who “accidentally” defected to South Korea but whose express intention was to go back home once she had saved up enough money for her medical treatment in China. Little did she know that her open acknowledgment of that plan, which was made known to South Korean authorities, would put her on the government’s watch list, making such clandestine efforts impossible. Toiling as a factory worker, the determined woman relentlessly pursues her repatriation cause with the help of local human rights activists. She maintains regular contacts with her relatively well-do-do family in Pyongyang — a doctor husband and an apprentice chef daughter — via cellular phone and Skyping. Intercut with scenes of Kim’s demoralized life in South Korea is rare footage shot in North Korea showing the everyday routines of those she left behind. By contrasting Kim’s mounting despair with her family’s small moments of happiness in the socialist North, Yi’s remarkably complex, nuanced film forces audiences to broaden their understanding of human rights in a part of the world that remains at least partially hidden in the proverbial “shadows.” 


By David Scott Diffrient



Seung-Jun Yi
South Korea
109 min

(Korean with English subtitles)