Meet the Filmmakers Behind 2022 CUFF: ‘White Donkey Natasha and I’
The Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF) is a celebration of students and alumni of the film program, screening short films from exciting emerging talent and bringing filmmakers together. For this series, we reached out to the makers of some of CUFF’s most unique films to talk about the craft, process, and story. In this edition, Donggyun Han ’19 discusses cinematic language and the many literary inspirations behind his film White donkey Natasha and mea sublime spy short film for book lovers.
White donkey Natasha and me is a calm film, soft as falling snow, with a self-contained simplicity that deepens upon further reflection. In many ways, it’s a very literary project, dreamed up by writer/director Donggyun Han based on the work of a poet, the life of a novelist, and centered in a library. It’s a kind of romance, even if the people in question only meet once, and one of them is a spy.
Set in New York in 1991, the film follows a young North Korean spy, Jin-Ok (Chaeyoung Kang,) whose task is to report on a South Korean writer who has been exiled from his home for traveling illegally. in North Korea (Jeonghwan Oh). Alone and isolated, Jin-Ok’s entire life consists of following her target and occasionally meeting her master Mihyang (Hyojin Park). Natasha, and I’ gives the film her name, and Jin-Ok begins to experiment with things beyond the narrow confines of her mission.
“It’s a portrait of an individual in a very systemic and critical period,” Donggyun explained during our conversation in April, referring to the lives of its main characters caught up in the complex movements of Korean and world politics. In the 90s.
Donggyun told me that the idea for the film came to him while working for his summer job at the lending desk of Columbia’s own East Asian Library. There he came into contact with North Korean books that were censored in South Korea.
“I started to imagine, what if there was a North Korean person who couldn’t return to their country but visited the library to see the books of their culture.”
“Even though I love American films and novels, my heroes are Paul Auster and [Professor] Tom Kalin—when I feel depressed or tired, I want to read something Korean. Sometimes I would spend time at the Korean bookstore or the East Asian library to find books that sounded interesting. So I thought there might be a North Korean person doing the same thing. [I imagined] how this person could come here – and the story started to come to mind.
The story also aligned with Donggyun’s interest in creating romance, as well as his concern for Korean politics: how individuals can relate beyond the ideology passed down to them. ? He described the film as a way of working on his own issues:
“I always start with a question that I have in mind. My idea [when starting White Donkey] was a romantic comedy. I was wondering, what is love? I always have questions about society, or ethics, or love, or life. The process of making a film [for me] is just to keep asking myself, what is it? Writing the story, and writing characters who struggle with the same questions, is my way of searching, it’s my way of finding answers to my questions.
“Cinema is a language”, he continued, “no one speaks for [the sake of] language alone, we speak to deliver something to others. Cinema is one of my favorite tools for speaking to the world.
Donggyun uses his cinema to convey the power of writers and the written word. Hwang’s character was inspired by the life of a true Korean novelist who went into exile in New York after being convicted in South Korea for breaking national security law while visiting Pyongyang. Donggyun was hesitant to make the link too explicit, but this piece of inspiration shows just how much his love of Korean literature has shaped white donkey.
The work of famous North Korean poet Baek Soek permeates the film. Jin-Ok, who is listening to Hwang’s phone calls, overhears him asking his family back home to look for Baek Soek. They read Baek’s poetry on the phone:
“It’s snowing, it’s snowing endlessly tonight. For the love I, poor thing, have for Natasha.
Lines like these from the poem “White Donkey, Natasha, and I” express a nameless longing that Jin-Ok carries. She develops her own fascination with Baek, returning to the library to find his book.
Baek’s poems are rich with the emotion missing from Jin-Ok’s solitary life. She has no ties other than Mihyang, her master, a vivacious woman who occasionally summons her to late-night meetings on a park bench (which keen-eyed viewers will recognize as one of those along Morningside Drive.) Union’s slow collapse into Jin-Ok’s life through radio and newspapers – stories that seem to cast doubt on Jin-Ok’s purpose.
The film is very much concerned with the difference between watching and seeing – the difference between Jin-Ok seeing his target as the subject of a mission and seeing him as a person. Monitoring her target’s movements, documenting her activities for her superiors by photographing her – photographs that present themselves to the public as freeze frames of what she sees.
At a crucial moment, Jin-Ok follows Hwang to Riverside, where she watches him watch the Hudson pass. Rather than taking a photo of her target, she instead shifts her lens and takes a photo of the river itself. The resulting black-and-white freeze frame suggests that she is learning to look in a new way: as an individual, as a human being, rather than as an instrument of a system. .
In the final moments of the film, Jin-Ok is riding the subway when she turns back to the camera, and the frame freezes in a photo taken of her. I asked Donggyun, who is taking this picture? Who finally sees the spectator?
“I would say nobody, but at the same time everyone,” he said. “I’m a big fan of open endings. I don’t want to decide for myself whether she escaped, or returned to the North, or went to another country. It’s black and white photography but at the same time it’s also freeze frame, sealing time and the moment at the very end.