The word ‘defector’ conjures up visions of atomic scientists and Cold War spies waiting for the moment to tiptoe through a border minefield and make a dash for freedom. But as this pulse-raising doc charts, for North Koreans, defection is less a political act than a bid for survival – an escape attempt where the price of failure is often death.
American filmmaker Madeleine Gavin follows the stories of two escape bids: one by the five-person Ro family, including two young girls and an elderly grandma, who are hoping to reunite with relatives in Seoul; the other, the young son of a defector called Soyeon Lee, who is also attempting to cross the Yalu River and begin the long journey to join his mum in South Korea.
The film’s greatest asset is incredible iPhone and flip-phone shakycam footage of the Ro family’s perilous flight, most of it captured by the so-called ‘brokers’ who run the escape networks for profit. And it is seriously perilous: the so-called ‘underground railroad’ spiriting North Koreans to freedom involves two major river crossings, almost impenetrable jungle, several mountains, and a seriously stealthy journey through China, Vietnam and Laos. Only in Thailand will they be free from the threat of arrest and a forceable return to Pyongyang, where torture and the gulag await.
The more uncertain progress of Soyeon Lee’s son, meanwhile, is captured through the fretful prism of a mum fearing for her boy’s life. Her hope that he’ll join her south of the border slowly curdles into anxiety and even guilt at the thought that she’s induced him to risk his life. The two are vivid case studies of what it takes to leave possibly the most oppressive country in the world.
The hero of the story is a South Korean clergyman called Pastor Kim, who helps coordinate escape attempts, risking imprisonment, or worse, in the process. The seven metal rods in his neck from a fall on a previous rescue mission speak to a rare courage and compassion. If they ever make a feature film of this story – and they should – actors will be falling over each other to play him.
This is what it takes to leave the most oppressive country in the world
Of course, Beyond Utopia needs to contextualise its Werner Herzog-esque survival missions. It does so imaginatively, with insightful interviews, animated vignettes of North Korea’s institutionalised brainwashing of its citizens, and some extraordinary hidden camera footage from within this bizarre and terrifying place. The worst imaginable advert for Communist Confucian hereditary dynasties, there are starved corpses in the streets, the ever-present threat of arrest and torture for the most minor misdemeanours, grinding poverty, and children forced to endure endless, numbing rehearsals for the propaganda mass games. Every house must have a freshly dusted portrait of the country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, on its walls. And there are regular prayers to Kim. That’s ‘to’ not ‘for’.
The level of brainwashing, privation and systemic abuse makes for an enraging, confronting watch, but it’s refreshingly focused on the people, rather than geopolitics. Just like for its two fleeing families, Beyond Utopia is an emotional journey.
In US theaters Oct 23 and UK cinemas Oct 27.