This year's Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) opened on Thursday with a movie portraying the plight of a North Korean defector and the unlikely family she formed during her harrowing journey.
South Korean feature film "Beautiful Days" centres on Zhen Chen, a young Korean-Chinese man who visits Seoul to find the mother who abandoned him 14 years ago, in a bid to fulfil his dying father's wish to see her.
The college student is left disappointed by the cold reception from his mother, played by top South Korean actress Lee Na-young -- a bar waitress who lives in a decrepit house with her gangster lover.
But Zhen Chen soon finds out his mother's dark secret -- she was a defector from the North sold by human traffickers to his father, a poor Korean-Chinese farmer living near the border.
Once full of resentment over her fate, she eventually finds peace with her newfound family but her dark past continues to haunt her, leading to tragic events that leave her separated from her husband and son.
The sombre, 104-minute film borrows many bleak details from the reality of the border between North Korea and China, home to a booming trade in human trafficking, drugs and prostitution.
Those fleeing poverty and repression in the North must first cross this border -- but many women who do so are sold by human traffickers to rural Chinese men as brides or forced into sex work.
Many endure a life akin to slavery, fearing harsh punishment at home once they are caught by Chinese authorities and are sent back.
China largely considers the North's defectors as economic migrants and repatriates them to the North where they face imprisonment, torture or time in labour camps.
- Reconciliation -
Director Jero Yun said his earlier chronicle of North Korean defectors -- and many people he had met at the frontier between the North and China -- inspired the latest film.
"Madam B" - his documentary released in 2016 -- told the story of a married North Korean refugee sold to a poor Chinese farmer, who she lived with for more than a decade before escaping to the South.
"I was always interested in telling stories of those at the margins of society... including those marginalised by the division of the two Koreas," the French-educated director told reporters.
"I wanted to pose questions about 'What is the true meaning of family?' by portraying (a) family that is unconventional in many aspects," he added.
Despite the bleak plot, "Beautiful Days" ends with cautious optimism, which Yun said was a metaphor for hopes of reconciliation and a better future between the two Koreas.
The flashpoint Korean peninsula is the last frontier of the Cold War, where hundreds of thousands perished during the 1950-53 war that sealed the division between North and South.
The two rivals have occasionally clashed over the heavily-fortified border, and the North has staged nuclear tests for decades.
But ties have warmed to a level unseen for decades after three historic summits between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and the South's dovish President Moon Jae-in.
"One of the key messages I wanted to convey through this movie is 'starting anew,' regardless of what happened in the past," Yun told reporters.
"And the two Koreas coincidentally are moving closer to each other these days as if starting their once-fraught relationships anew... I find the whole development very positive," he said.