The Tumen River marks part of the boundary between North Korea and China. The Tumen, an icy river that is frozen for many months of the year, divides the hungry from the poor. Crossing it is dangerous, not merely because of the brittle ice on its surface, but also on account of the heavily armed soldiers that patrol the North Korean border. In spite of this, the Chinese claim that over 400,000 Koreans have already crossed the Tumen hoping to find happiness in China. Many North Koreans only come to find food for their families. One such North Korean is the boy that twelve-year-old Chang-ho befriends. The boy is the same age as Chang-ho; he makes the crossing regularly to look after his sick sister. This illegal border trade is by no means viewed favourably by everyone in China. And there’s certainly no messing with the human traffickers who make a living from the poorest of the poor. The Chinese children are the only ones who make friends with the North Korean border-crossers; they play football and share what little food they have with them. Chang-ho’s mute sister Soon-hee also begins looking after her brother’s North Koreans friend and soon they all spend time together. Loudspeakers blare out announcements that punishment awaits those who fraternise with the Koreans. Life at the Tumen River is dangerous and can be cruel. There was a time when a bridge spanned the river and North Koreans and Chinese could pay each other visits. There’s only one old woman who can remember this time. She dreams of being able to cross over once more during her lifetime.
by Zhang Lu
with Cui Jian, Yin Lan, Li Jinglin, Lin Jinlong, Jin Xuansheng
South Korea / France 2009