My Name is Loh Kiwan

  • 23 Mar - 29 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

“A one-way ticket please,” says Loh Kiwan, a refugee in Berlin who defected from North Korea. But is he really willing to risk his life by leaving behind the newfound safety of his refugee status? The latest Netflix drama is helmed by Kim Hee-jin and stars Song Joong-ki and Choi Sung-eun in pivotal roles. It is based on the novel I Met Loh Kiwan by Cho Hae-jin.
My Name Is Loh Kiwan delicately spins a narrative of a North Korean defector’s struggle to survive in a foreign land while battling his inner demons. Loh Kiwan and his mother fled from North Korea, seeking refuge across the border in China. But the journey to freedom comes with a cost, and not everyone makes it through unscathed. As Loh Kiwan finally finds himself in Berlin, the cost of his escape becomes painfully clear.
The film begins with a heart-wrenching scene where the protagonist, tears streaming down his face, scrubs away bloodstains from the road. What follows is a tale revealing how those very bloodstains funded his journey abroad, symbolising the sacrifices made for a chance at a better life. Despite not coursing through a living body, those stains become the currency for his sustenance, underlining the harsh realities of survival and the lengths one must go to attain a refugee status.
The movie shows that for North Koreans trying to flee their country, getting to China is just the beginning of a difficult journey toward freedom. It reveals the dangers they face after crossing, including the constant risk of being sent back to North Korea. When Song Joong-ki’s character, now a defector, makes it to Berlin, it becomes a journey of proving himself and his escape from North Korea. Along the way, he meets Marie (played by Choi Sung-eun), who shares his struggles, and together they seek solace and answers in their shared hardships.
In this film, certain moments grip your heart and Song Joong-ki emerges as the ideal vessel through which emotions are conveyed, effortlessly speaking volumes with his eyes. Whether it’s the simplicity of him watching Choi Sung-eun as she ties her hair in a cramped, grimy 200 square-foot room before sharing a meal, or the desperation of eating an egg roll in a public restroom to escape the biting cold, each scene is masterfully crafted by the director, immersing you completely into this tale of hardship and sorrow. Under the guise of a refugee story, Netflix’s My Name is Loh Kiwan is an action-romance melodrama that rests on Song Joong-ki’s grounded performance to make it work. With a stellar central portrayal and speed-of-a-bullet pacing, the film is an enjoyable first-time watch – even if it gets its wires crossed about its core conflicts.
The film’s first half has interesting juxtapositions as it sets up the central conflicts. Visually, there’s a duality between Kiwan’s destitution and the clean and well-kept European city that surrounds him. Even the public toilet where he sleeps is pristine, marking the discrepancy between the country’s wealth and his own poverty — an infuriating fact when we see their reluctance to accept him as a refugee. This realism gives the story its emotional weight, making it harder to buy into the movie-manufactured melodrama that comes later, especially in relation to Mari.
The ending will surprise you, but also leave you smiling. After suffering the loss of loved ones, escaping his homeland, several cold nights outside, and countless hungry nights, Loh Kiwan’s decision at the end may appear careless and foolish to some. But his lines, ‘My answer was to never live in a country but the right to leave it whenever I want,’ justify his actions.
Apart from exploring themes of love and sorrow, the film also offers a peek into the lives of other refugees. It explores the broader theme of humanity, showing how borders have become a menacing barrier to our collective compassion. Through these narratives, the movie sheds light on the universal struggles faced by displaced individuals.