Meet the Filmmakers Behind 2022 CUFF: 'White Donkey Natasha and I'
BY Emily Johnson, May 20, 2022
The Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF) is a celebration of the Film Program’s students and alumni, screening shorts from exciting emerging talents, and bringing filmmakers together. For this series, we reached out to the directors of just a few of CUFF’s most unique films to talk about 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 I, a sublime spy short for book lovers.
White Donkey Natasha and I is a quiet film, gentle as falling snow, with a self-contained simplicity that deepens upon further reflection. In so 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, though the people in question meet only once, and one of them is a spy.
Set in New York City 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 illegally traveling to North Korea (Jeonghwan Oh). Lonely and isolated, Jin-Ok’s entire life revolves around following her target and occasionally meeting with her handler Mihyang (Hyojin Park.) But through her target, she encounters the work of a North Korean poet—Baek Soek, whose poem ‘White Donkey, Natasha, and I’ gives the film its name—and Jin-Ok begins to experience things beyond the narrow confines of her mission.
“It’s a portrait of an individual in a very systemic, critical period,” Donggyun explained during our conversation in April, referring to the lives of his main characters, caught up in the complex movements of Korean and global politics in the 90s.
Donggyun told me that the idea for the film came to him as he was working his summer job at the circulation desk of Columbia’s own East Asian Library. There, he came into contact with North Korean books which were censored in South Korea.
“I started imagining, what if there was a North Korean person who couldn’t go back to his country but visited the library to see the books from his culture.”
“Even though I like US 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 in the Korean book store or the East Asian Library to find books that looked interesting. So I thought, there might be a North Korean person doing the same thing. [I imagined] how that person might come to be here—and the story started to come to me.”
The story also dovetailed with Donggyun’s interest in creating a romance, as well as his preoccupation with Korean politics: how can individuals make connections beyond the ideology handed down to them? He described film as a way of working through his own questions:
“I’m always starting from a question I have in my 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 filmmaking [for me] is just to keep asking myself, what is this? Writing the story, and writing characters who struggle with the same questions, that’s my way of researching, that’s my way of finding answers to my questions.
“Cinema is a language,” he continued, “nobody speaks for [the sake of] language alone, we speak to deliver something to others. Cinema is one of my favorite tools to speak to the world.”
Donggyun uses his cinema to transmit the power of writers and the written word. The character Hwang was inspired by the life of a real Korean novelist who entered self-imposed exile in New York after being sentenced in South Korea for breaching national security law by visiting Pyongyang. Donggyun was cautious about making the connection too explicit, but this element of inspiration shows how deeply his love of Korean literature shaped White Donkey.
The work of the famous North Korean poet Baek Soek suffuses the film. Jin-Ok, wiretapping Hwang’s phone calls, overhears him asking his family back home to look up Baek Soek. They read Baek’s poetry on the phone:
‘It snows, it snows boundlessly tonight. For the love that I, the poor, have for Natasha.’
Lines like these from ‘White Donkey, Natasha, and I’ the poem, 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 that Jin-Ok’s solitary life lacks. She has no connections apart from Mihyang, her handler, a brisk woman who occasionally summons her to late-night meetings on a park bench (which sharp-eyed viewers will recognize as one of those along Morningside Drive.) Donggyun threads news of the Soviet Union’s slow collapse into Jin-Ok’s life through radio and newspapers—stories which seem to sow doubt in Jin-Ok about her purpose.
The film is very interested in the difference between surveilling and seeing—the difference between Jin-Ok seeing her target as the subject of a mission, and seeing him as a person. Monitoring her target’s movements, documenting his activities for her superiors by photographing him—photographs which occur for the audience as freeze-frames of what she’s seeing.
In a crucial moment, Jin-Ok follows Hwang to Riverside, where she watches him watching the Hudson flow by. Rather than taking a photograph of her target, she instead shifts her lens over and takes a photograph 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 getting on the subway when she turns back to the camera, and the frame freezes in a photograph taken of her. I asked Donggyun, who is taking that photograph? Who is finally seeing the watcher?
“I’d say nobody, but at the same time everyone,” he said. “I’m a big fan of open endings. I don’t want to decide by myself if she escaped, or went back 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 the time and the moment at the very end.”
One of Donggyun’s favorite shots in the film takes place in the library, where Jin-Ok has seated herself at a table in front of the target with her back to him. To take his picture, she places the tiny spy camera on the table surreptitiously, near her elbow. He is to the left of the frame, and she is to the right, forming complementary shapes, but she is in the foreground and he is in the background. It’s an eloquent image; they fit well side-by-side, but are actually far apart. The closeness between them is both an illusion and a matter of perspective, and the perspective is all hers.
“I always try to find the cinematic language,” Donggyun said of his filmmaking style, “and at the same time I’m always trying to find the moment that cannot happen in the real world, only in the film.”
He pointed to the moment where Jin-Ok is on the bench, reading the transcribed pages of Baek Soek she was about to hand off to Mihyang. Just as she reads the lines, ‘It snows, it snows boundlessly tonight,’ a soft, lilting snow begins to fall.
“I had to learn to make snow VFX,” Donggyun noted. I couldn’t hide my surprise that he’d done it himself.
“I was never a CGI person,” he said laughing, “it took me a year.”
Those perfectly-timed, achingly beautiful snowflakes are just further evidence of Donggyun’s attention to detail, his way of finding magic in small moments that, as he says, ‘cannot happen in the real world.’
I asked Donggyun, who currently teaches filmmaking at Korea’s Kongju National University, what was influential about his time at Columbia.
“Kalin is the father of my cinema. One of the reasons I decided to make a living as a film professor was because I was inspired by his lifestyle. He was teaching at Columbia, and he was waiting for the projects he really wanted to direct. The same is true for me, I only want to direct the things I want to direct.”
The film world may count itself lucky if every project Donggyun devotes his time to is as compelling as White Donkey, Natasha, and I.
White Donkey, Natasha, and I screened as part of the Columbia University Film Festival on May 7 and May 14, 2022.