‘Crossings’ Continues Deann Borshay Liem’s Career-Spanning Korea Project

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A still from 'Crossings,' directed by Deann Borshay Liem.  (Niana Liu)

In 2000, Deann Borshay Liem’s revelatory debut, First Person Plural, recounted her experiences as a Korean adoptee growing up in the East Bay suburbs and then looking for her birth family as an adult.

A landmark of personal documentary, the film (which premiered at Sundance, aired nationally on PBS and is well worth watching on Kanopy) painted a complicated picture of identity and aspirational assimilation (crystallized by Borshay’s acceptance as a UC Berkeley cheerleader) while exposing the buried transnational history of Korean adoption in the 1950s and ’60s.

Liem continued to mine her life, and face uncomfortable truths about Korea’s adoption campaign, in her 2010 follow-up In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (also on Kanopy) and Geographies of Kinship (2019). The ad hoc trilogy powerfully conveys how distant and seemingly concluded events relegated to a couple sentences in a history book reverberate forever in countless lives and families.

A still from ‘Crossings,’ directed by Deann Borshay Liem. (Niana Liu)

“In reflecting on the works that I’ve directed, it turns out all of them touch on the Korean War,” Liem says today. “It wasn’t that I intended to make films that address the war in the beginning. Now I understand: It is the singular trauma of my generation, and the generation that preceded me, and also after me. It’s the event that formed who I am, that brought me to this country and it’s the root of the Korean-American community in the United States.”

Liem was the natural filmmaker to document Women Cross DMZ, Korean-American activist Christine Ahn’s ambitious and fraught 2015 undertaking — with 30 women peace activists from 13 countries — to walk from North Korea to South Korea across the demilitarized zone. Long delayed, yet sadly still timely, Crossings concludes its festival run May 13 in CAAMFest.


Crossings deftly recounts the group’s step-by-step adjustments to the obstacles thrown at them. While it’s tempting to laugh at diplomatic and political absurdity, the respective governments were not amused by Women Cross DMZ’s symbolic gambit to temporarily erase the border between North and South Korea.

A still from ‘Crossings,’ directed by Deann Borshay Liem. (Niana Liu)

Ahn’s tested cohorts include Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, alongside women’s movement pioneer Gloria Steinem and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin. The group’s goal of advancing peace is rooted in the overriding yet largely unknown fact that a peace agreement was never signed when the conflict was stopped in 1950.

“The Korean War literally did not end,” Liem explains. “We have this armistice that suspended the fighting but no formal peace. The war in many ways is still being prosecuted through policies of isolation, sanctions and threats of military strikes. It’s important to shed light on the U.S. role, not only in dividing the peninsula but continuing the status quo of unresolved conflict. The U.S. can play such a critical role in whether progress is made toward reconciliation and peace, or not.”

For precisely that reason, Liem says, she made Crossings for an American audience. She gives Steinem — the best-known figure to U.S. viewers — ample screen time, without overstating or misrepresenting her influence among the coterie of strong, strategic women from abroad.

While the Women Cross DMZ activists in the film discuss and debate countermoves to logistical hurdles, they weigh how the media (in South and North Korea, to be sure, but all over the world) will spin their words and actions. Yet they are still blindsided when an innocuous comment by Christine Ahn at a group visit to supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s birthplace — chosen by the activists instead of a proffered, propagandist statue visit — is portrayed by South Korean journalists as sympathetic to the North Korea regime.

A still from ‘Crossings,’ directed by Deann Borshay Liem. (Stephen Wunrow)

“Whenever U.S.-North Korea conflicts arise, we typically see goose-stepping soldiers on Kim Il Sung Plaza or shots of Kim Jung Un that are not very favorable — certain sets of shots that are repeated over and over again,” the soft-spoken Berkeley filmmaker says. “There just isn’t much available, right? I call it North Korea wallpaper: Images that reinforce what we think we know, and what we think we know is very limited and infused with both racial stereotypes and specific stereotypes about the North Korean people.”

Much of Crossings unfolds in North Korea, which gives viewers a nearly unknown perspective of the country and its people that runs against certain preconceptions. At a symposium in Pyongyang attended by the activists, an elderly North Korean woman describes the mutilations she received from a GI during the war. When the Women Cross DMZ group has opportunities to interact with people in public in North Korea, they (and we) judge the local women’s spontaneity and authenticity.

“My initial interest,” Liem says, “was are the [activists] going to cross the DMZ? What do they have to do to cross? How are they going to negotiate the different approvals from North, South, the UN Command? What would their conversations be like at night, behind closed doors? But ultimately I became very interested in a different question: Could the women actually see the North Korean people as human beings? Could they see their humanity and what would that look like?”

Liem adds, “I understood at some point that the women were struggling with their presence in the North and struggling with their own values. You come with so many preconceptions, you don’t trust anything people are saying. How do you understand what you’re experiencing? Was there a way my audience — peace activists, feminists — could see North Korea through these people’s eyes?”

This derives from Americans’ view of North Korea as an authoritarian state, but it’s also rooted in the way that country has been identified as an enemy of the United States for 75 years. And yet the Korean War is, in the American imagination, the forgotten war. A million North Koreans and two million South Koreans died, along with a million Chinese.

“This is a trauma that is seared into the collective consciousness of the Korean people,” Liem says, “and the Chinese people, actually.”


‘Crossings’ screens at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 13, at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco. Details here. The film will air on the World Channel in July, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the armistice.