Letter from: untold stories from Sakhalin, the island where Russia meets Korea

Letter from: untold stories from Sakhalin, the island where Russia meets Korea

Can a Russian-Korean co-production due to be filmed on Sakhalin Island next year bring the two countries closer together? It's ambitious but Sakhalin's Koreans have already shown they are able to succeed in trying circumstances, writes Andy Potts

12 September 2013
Text Andy Potts

Sakhalin is known as the “edge of the world”. So much so that the Russian island, which sits atop Japan, has incorporated the descriptor into the title of its international film festival, now in its third year. When I receive an invitation to attend the festival, I find it hard to imagine what awaits me on the island. Nine hours by plane from Moscow, it’s remote and little known even by Russian standards. Friends speak fondly of monstrous pink crabs, ocean-fresh and boiled up on the shoreline for a beach picnic, but details are otherwise scarce: it’s far away, seldom visited and rarely in the news. The Kamchatka Peninsula to the north draws tourists looking for adventurous skiing holidays; Sakhalin’s isolation from the rest of Russia, and its proximity to Japan and Korea, have drawn its history and culture down a different path. Lying just 40km from Hokkaido in Japan, and a continent away from Russia’s heartlands, it’s a region which sees its destiny closely tied to Asia.

Historically it’s been the subject of a tug of war between Russia and Japan; that gives Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island’s capital, some unusual details. At first glance its central grid seems very Soviet: street names recall Marx and Lenin, or hail prospects of peace and friendship. The town’s theatre bears Chekhov’s name, its park remembers Gagarin. But the finest building downtown, now the city museum, is the former residence of the Japanese governor, dating from the period between Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905 and the fall of Japan in 1945. Although the Japanese left, hurriedly, at the end of the Second World War, a community of around 40,000 Sakhalin Koreans remains to this day.

“If Moscow’s swankier stores pride themselves on German or Finnish produce, Sakhalin shoppers learn to decipher Korean script”

With Seoul just three hours away by plane, it’s cheaper and easier for supermarkets to import from there than from Europe. If Moscow’s swankier stores pride themselves on German or Finnish produce, Sakhalin shoppers learn to decipher Korean script. At shopping malls, there’s always a Korean option among the burgers and blini of the fast food outlets, and the mayonnaise-slathered salads so beloved of Russians are no more common than spicy Korean kimchi. Much of the island’s estimated 40,000-strong Korean community is based in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a city of 175,000 people. Korean faces are visible on the streets, in the shops and offices.

Korea is visible, yes, but not greatly audible. The Korean community has assimilated to an impressive degree — so much so that come the fall of the USSR and the normalisation of relations between Seoul and Moscow, only about 10,000 Sakhalin Koreans — perhaps 20% — opted to return to their homeland, despite the uncertainties that rocked Russia throughout the Nineties. Hybrid Korean-Russian names are common, from famous figures like Sakhalin-born novelist Anatoly Kim or Leningrad rock legend Viktor Tsoi. At the Sakhalin International Film Festival it was apparent that finding Korean-Russian interpreters to assist with the extensive strand of Korean films had been a major challenge for the organisers. As Alisa Kim explained, most of her peers regard themselves as Russian, speak English as a second language of choice and know barely a handful of phrases in Korean. Anatoly Kim won his fame as a Russian writer, a composer of short stories regarded as a worthy heir to the tradition of Chekhov — fitting acclaim, considering the island’s previous moment in the cultural spotlight came through the writer’s visit in 1890, his subsequent social study Sakhalin Island and its fleeting role in one of the master’s short stories.

Fittingly it is Kim’s prose — perhaps the high point of Sakhalin’s cultural achievements — that has inspired a project which aims to celebrate the Sakhalin Koreans. His short story The Revenge is the subject of a planned Russian-Korean co-production, unveiled at the film festival. Pooling the talents of acclaimed Russian director Pavel Chukhray, Oscar-nominated for The Thief (1997), and influential Korean producer Lee Joo-Ick (whose most recent credit is the quirky Hollywood Western The Warrior’s Way), it promises to be the first major movie filmed on Sakhalin when the cameras start rolling next summer.

The story is one of anger, honour, revenge and redemption. But it’s also a parable of the need to set aside violence and to learn love and forgiveness. It begins at the end of the war, as the ash from Hiroshima falls on the island and the Japanese leave. For Lee, it’s a chance to highlight the resilience of his compatriots on Sakhalin and also tell a story which he believes has a universal resonance.

“The history of Koreans on Sakhalin began in negative circumstances, but it has turned into something positive,” says Lee. “Now people are more aware [of the Korean Russians], but before they were an abandoned people…That relationship [between Korea and Russia] is recovering little by little, but this is more than just a story about Koreans and Russians. This is about a universal premise.”

“It’s not a natural tourist destination — too remote, too underdeveloped, and light years away from the travel agent cliche of even adventurous travel — but it retains a certain charm”

Chukhray also sees a message in Kim’s prose which transcends the insular concerns of Sakhalin. Despite being born in the terror and confusion of the war, and telling a sometimes bitter tale of murder and vengeance, the director does not see the narrative as a dark one.

“For me this is a story painted in light shades,” he says. “I hope this can be understood throughout the cinematic world. It’s a story about how revenge cannot solve our problems, how only the warmth of humanity and kindness, or love, can bring us happiness. It’s not just about love between a man and a woman, a specific relationship, it’s about love in general: love for nature, love for humanity. I hope people can take away a positive message from this film.”

Meanwhile, Sakhalin is also hoping to take something from the proposed filming. Although the island is the centre of sizeable oil and gas reserves, many residents feel that the country’s hydrocarbon wealth is reaped elsewhere. The island’s authorities have expressed interest in supporting the filming, both as an opportunity to give work and professional skills to local youngsters and also — perhaps — to put the island on the global map for the first time since it became a Cold War flashpoint in 1983. In a bitter irony, it was a Korean civilian airliner which strayed off course and crossed into restricted Soviet airspace, prompting fighters to fear a spy plane and shoot it down. The stricken jet, en route from Anchorage to Seoul, plummeted into the Sea of Japan between Sakhalin and mainland Russia. All 269 people on board died.

That coastline is now one of the island’s potential attractions. Outside of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a short drive to the coast brings visitors to unspoilt sandy beaches, salt-water lagoons and occasional unexpected reminders of the Japanese legacy, such as the Thirties lighthouse at Cape Svobodny, still functional today. The seas aren’t exactly a delight to swim in, but divers are attracted by the wrecks of the Russo-Japanese war. To the north, hardier travellers brave the bears to explore the volcanic ranges that form part of the Pacific Ocean’s so-called Ring of Fire. Protected beneath solidified lava flows, the base rock remains rich in fossils, while dwindling numbers of the indigenous Nivkh and Orok communities strive to maintain a way of life which has endured in the shadow of the more powerful Russian and Japanese influence which have swirled around them. It’s not a natural tourist destination — too remote, too underdeveloped, and light years away from the travel agent cliche of even adventurous travel — but it retains a certain charm.

So even if the example of New Zealand’s Tolkien-fuelled tourist trade might seem a fantasy to outstrip any of Bilbo Baggins’ adventures, a more realistic hope would see the film industries of Russia and Korea working together and, in turn, bringing the two countries closer together. “A long time ago we saw how the US and China started closer relations after a series of ping-pong games,” says Lee. “Japan and China did it with a panda. Think about the power and influence a movie can have. Doing this project could contribute to a closer relationship between the governments and peoples of our countries.”

It’s an ambitious aim. But Sakhalin’s Koreans have already proved well capable of succeeding in trying circumstances.

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