Filmmaker Justin Kim WooSŏk’s latest short film, Sarajin, is a demoralising look at an immigrant families’ struggles when the industry they pitched their livelihoods to fails. It is an excellent film that doesn’t forget to leave us with hope.
In a remote Alaskan town, DongSu, a snow crab fisherman, struggles to make ends meet for his immigrant family. When the snow crabs he depends on suddenly disappear due to climate change, he and his family must decide whether to stay or leave their new home.
There is such bravery in being an immigrant, uprooting yourself and possibly your family to go to another country and make something better for everyone. So, when the job that perhaps paid well for years slowly starts to decline and the money becomes more difficult to obtain, there must be an untold amount of pressure on you. This is where DongSu finds himself, stuck in no man’s land. He wants the job he took to provide for his family to succeed and keep succeeding but is struck with the undeniable realisation that it will fail. The fear of starting over again at an older age is terrifying, especially as it will mean he does so by upheaving everyone. If Sarajin was solely about this story thread, it would be compelling. Still, Justin Kim WooSok has more he wants to talk about to his audience.
Covering a piece of news that we as the public may not be aware of, Sarajin also broaches the topic of the continued decline of animals in our oceans. Here it is the snow crabs that are brought to our attention and the fact that some 10 billion disappeared in 2022, decimating the fishing industry. Co-writers Justin Kim WooSŏk and Ki Jin Kim capably merge both stories to give us this frank and painful look at immigrants who must rebuild somewhere else and the town that climate change has affected.
Built around small but meaningful conversations, Sarajin throws its audience through the wringer. We have that first heart-to-heart from DongSu and JaeJeong where you pain for the couple. DongSu is only doing what he thinks is best for the family: while they are currently going through a difficult time, they and the ocean will keep them right. It’s a mix of a prideful man who is also full of hope; that hope is seemingly being held in a desperate grip, but it’s there. JaeJeong (played with subdued resignation yet holding a compelling emotional strength in her character quite wonderfully by Taehee Kim) however has seen the signs and knows that it is time. She has the foresight to know that they need to move on, if not for them, for their daughter. In a very telling and important moment, she reveals she can’t afford to send money home. How horribly dishonourable it is for the eldest child not to be the one supporting her parents.
It feels like one gut punch after another in Sarajin and is so well executed. Just as it looks like DongSu and the boat he works on are preparing to leave, devastation strikes in another delay. You see the dismay and resignation on his face. He knows what he has to do. So, when he has one last succinct discussion with JaeJeong, a wave of emotions goes through his face. He is played to pitch-perfect realism by Jongman Kim. You feel for the emotionally battered man throughout the short. When we get those final seconds of him with JaeJeong, we see that hope return. Finally, we can breathe some form of relief that with that bit of unsaid optimism, he and his family will be okay.
Sarajin is a story of resilience, finding the strength to know when to call it and move on from a difficult situation. Immigrants know this better than most. Rebuilding a life is never easy, but sometimes, even when we don’t want it to be, it is necessary. Justin Kim WooSŏk’s wonderful film portrays that in the strongest of ways – a fantastic short.
For more coverage of TIFF 2023 please check out our reviews below:
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