Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 29, 2023 1:06 pm 
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North Korea and some who escape

Of documentaries about North Korea this is one of the best. The focus is mixed. There are people talking and illustrations to explain what the place is like in general terms from the division of Korea into north and south after the defeat of Japan in World War II to recent times. This information is pieced into snippets and used to separate several tales of escape, or attempted escape, from North to South Korea. With the expository material may be included clips from Hyeonseo Lee, a pretty female defector with vivid observations she now presents in public lectures in her now polished English. For film background on this subject you also need to watch the few that actually show life in North Korea, such as Mads Brügger's Red Chapel (ND/NF, 2010). Mads was there for a while, fooling his minders during a fake ceremonial visit. If anyone makes a film showing actual everyday North Korean life and sneaks it out, that will be a bigger coup and tougher to do and more fascinating even than Beyond Utopia. But since North Korea is the third least democratic and least free country on God's earth opportunities are severely limited.

Several reviews have asserted that Beyond Utopia's informational segments are conventional and will be forgotten. They say the real meat is the material about actual escapes to the South, or attempts at them. Really the problem is that the whole film feels like watching someone constantly, mindlessly, channel-surfing between three different channels. But it's all interesting, or parts of it: the channel-surfer is understandable because these were three watchable programs.

Most commented-upon, naturally, have been the sequences (actual, no reenactments) of the Rohs, a family of five, mom and dad, granny, and two young girls, who escape into China and from there into Vietnam, then into Laos, and then into Thailand, from whence they can safely and openly be processed into South Korea. Alternating with these segments are the ones, also defection-related, showing Soyeon Lee, a mother who defected to South Korea a decade ago and wanted her son to join her. He tried but has been captured and she is trying on the phone to do something about that. Soyeon Lee's story is sad but not cinematic.

Parts of all of these are memorable, including the Hyeonseo Lee revelations and the filmmaker's own supplied North Korea lecture notes (when what they supply is new and jaw-dropping). The overland clandestine parts of the Rohs' journey are vivid and one wonders how they were done, particularly when they're physically challenging, such as when fording a river and clamoring up and down a forested mountain at night, with paid agents (on the mountain) who are playing with them, taking them in circles to demand more pay. There are repeated stories of the brutality of North Korean penalties for would-be defectors who are caught, which may apply directly to Soyeon Lee's son. The best outcome may be a gulag, the worst being left in a wilderness to die.

The film would be better and clearer if the "how" of the on-the-road footage of the Rohs had been explained. The Rohs make their circuitous escape (or defection) thanks to Pastor Kim, a Christian devoted to helping North Koreans defect. Pastor Kim is not only the Roys's escape's mastermind but is actually with them (and rides in a car up ahead in segments of the journey traveled by car) when the Rohs go from China to Vietnam to Laos and into Thailand, where they are finally safe. Thailand is not communist, so they won't be caught and sent back. But there, we're told, they are sent to six months of retraining, in preparation for life outside North Korea. We don't see this or even get any further explanation of it.

What's difficult to film - traversing a river, the night journey in the mountains - is exciting, but after all not unlike other such scenes and not what informs us about North Korea. Easy-to-film scenes of the Rohs when they get to South Korea are actually among the most revelatory. This is because they show just how much of a transformation the change is and how difficult it is, especially for the two young girls and the granny, who find it hard to let go of their indoctrination. The girls still say Kim Jong Un is the most wonderful person in the world. The father is evidently very fit but in his fifties, and he is angry at himself for not escaping when he was younger.

A particular fascination is granny. This is one tough family and she is the toughest. It's astonishing to learn she was eighty. She crosses the rivers and climbs the mountains without complaint. She had not even wanted to leave. In South Korea, she expresses how hard it is to break out of the brainwashing she experienced all her life in the North; to grasp that, clearly now, the world of Kim Jong Un was not utopia. But now her missing front teeth have been replaced and she seems even younger than she seemed in Pastor Kim's cars and in the mountain forest.

The brainwashing is hard to shake off, but the evidence is before their eyes. En route to the South, two safe houses where the Rohs stay over are shown. They're fine by any standards, and for the Rohs are like Heaven. How can the water flow be so strong? When does it stop? When does the electricity go off? If Dear Leader Kim Jong-il demanded so much of them, why are other countries (of which they knew nothing) so much better off?

Some facts about the North explained in the expository segments, and by the Rohs, were news to me. The Rohs and many at least have no indoor plumbing, and not just that: due to a shortage of fertilizer, they must retrieve the poo from their hole-in-the ground outdoor shack toilets and deliver it in big plastic bags to collection points, such as a school, where it is gathered and distributed to farms. The Rohs are prompted to compare their new South Korean apartament bullding with smaller ones in the North. The latter they say have no elevators, and the billows of dark smoke above them are due to having only wood heating. (The last image of the film is of two men struggling with long carts on a slippery, snowy slope bearing thin trees for wood.)

The beyond-Orwellian world of the DPRK is best expressed by the astonishing information that the Bible is outlawed there, and so is Christianity, and that Kim Jong Un has coopted Christian teachings to himself. There is a set of ten exhortations that is stolen from the Ten Commandments. More routine, but also chilling, is the many hours small children, even five-year-olds, must spend every year training endlessly for giant gymkhanas (a hallmark of the fascist state); and the requirement that every home, without exception, must have a large image of the Dear Leader displayed in the most prominent place in the house. It must be maintained spotlessly, and inspectors come regularly, without warning, wearing white gloves. Any dust leads to severe punishment.

The Rohs are amazing. But factoids like that will also stay with me. One of the year's best documentaries.

Beyond Utopia, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2023; included in many other US and international festivals, including DOCNY, Busan, Stockholm, Telluride, Zurich, Hamptons, Toronto. Limited US theatrical and internet release Nov. 28, 2023. Metacritic rating: 84%.


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