Little Pyongyang is a touching and stylised look at the experiences of one refugee Joong-wha Choi, a former soldier in the DPRK who now lives with his family in New Malden, home to Europe’s biggest North Korean population. Directed and produced by British filmmaker Roxy Rezvany, the film offers a multi-faceted view of day-to-day life as a refugee, recounting Joong-wha’s childhood memories, his reasons for leaving, and his desire to return despite ever-present human rights violations. Little Pyongyang is a compelling portrayal of belonging, grief, and the complexities of recovering from trauma.
Rezvany started preparations for filming in 2014, having spent time in New Malden with her partner who grew up there and meeting North Koreans who shared their stories with her. Realising that for many refugees’ children, their only experience of their heritage and parents’ homeland will be what’s available in the media, Rezvany set out to contribute to the North Korean community for future generations too, by offering a more personal and in-depth portrait of life as a North Korean refugee. Little Pyongyang challenges preconceptions of North Korea, changing the conversation from Kim Jong-un and the ‘oddities’ of his regimes and nuclear programmes, to focusing on the voices of North Koreans themselves.
According to Rezvany, the production design was an important part of the visual language of how Joong-wha’s story was conveyed:
“While we track literal and emotional journeys that he directly relays to us using his own words, the design offered an outlet to fully explore the depths of what he narrates and all the ambiguity and complexity of what he was communicating, beyond words. All the film’s designs reference designs, traditions, culture, and everyday objects evocative of or associated with North Korea – using resources such as the work of Nicholas Bonner with his book ‘Made in North Korea’, and the photography of Oliver Wainwright, as well as Joong-wha’s own testimonial.
Moments such as the recurring depiction of a pair of ice skates do refer to his childhood dreams of becoming a champion skater which were never achieved, but are not simply illustrations or recreations. Instead, I used them more like symbols or representations of something more abstract in the relationship Joong-wha has with North Korea – and to help convey the way that you can feel simultaneously great regret, pain, sadness as well as joy and goodness encapsulated in memories and through nostalgia.”