Return to the Border is a long “short,” about forty-five minutes. The filmmaker’s off-camera narration (or it may be an interpreter speaking for him) is in English; the on-screen dialogue is subtitled.
It is a documentary made by a Chinese person who grew up near the China-North Korea border, and now is returning there to see how things have changed. So he films the current activities along the border, follows around some traders and such, and offers his reflections.
It’s the kind of topic that has potential, but I just never got into it more than a little. I feel like an opportunity to see such an obscure part of the world should have been a lot more interesting.
I didn’t see much structure to the film, or what points the filmmaker was trying to make. It’s a cursory look at how these people live, with random footage and commentary, but nothing that made me feel like I’m substantially better informed on this topic now, or that I’m more connected emotionally to the people.
One point I got that he’s making is that North Korea today is more like China in the 1950s and 1960s (when China suffered through greater privation up to and including mass famines, and had a more insane political system) than China today. But beyond that, I just didn’t pick up on much.
Late in the film he’s granted access to North Korea, and tours certain areas including the capital Pyongyang. But this turns out to be anti-climactic in terms of filmmaking—arguably through no fault of his own—because it’s a heavily guided tour where what he’s allowed to film is very limited, and where he’s not allowed to interact with any of the people. So the only North Koreans we see in Pyongyang are shot at a distance from the vehicle he’s in.
Some of the visuals are nice. I particularly liked the Yalu River border area in winter, covered in snow. (Beautiful to look at; certainly wouldn’t want to be there.)
Like I say, Return to the Border has decent potential, but it just didn’t do much for me.