Beyond Utopia


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Beyond Utopia
"Beyond being nailbiting - a feeling driven by Hyun Seok Kim’s ‘heartbeat’ score that quickens our own - Gavin’s film is also an eye-opener." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Madeleine Gavin has a background in editing, working on the likes of Luce and Meadowland and that skill is also to the fore in her latest documentary. In it, she weaves together tense footage of North Koreans attempting the treacherous journey to freedom with first-person testimony from those who have defected and a potted history of the rogue state itself.

You can sense the background research and meticulous trust-building that has gone on behind the scenes almost immediately as we meet Pastor Kim, a South Korean who has been helping people escape the North Korean dictatorship along a complex ‘underground railroad’ for years. He has helped thousands from the dangerous border mountains of China down through neighbouring countries, via an unforgiving jungle and a river to the sanctuary of Thailand. The bravery to do this - an activity that has already led to Kim breaking his neck in the past - is coupled with the courage of being willing to tell all of this story on camera.

Kim’s attempts to aid three generations of a five-strong family as they try to reach the safety of his country via a tortuous route forms one of the main strands of Gavin’s film as we become fully invested in the welfare of this mum and dad, with their kids and 80-year-old gran reaching safety. The film highlights just how much bribery and risk is required and how easy it is for defectors to fall foul of traffickers, either by being sold on into sex slavery or back to the regime. A second story of attempted defection is followed as Soyeon Lee, who escaped the country previously, makes a bid to help her teenage son join her.

Beyond being nailbiting - a feeling driven by Hyun Seok Kim’s ‘heartbeat’ score that quickens our own - Gavin’s film is also an eye-opener, which helps explain why it won the audience award at this year’s Sundance. Chief among those offering insight into living under the despotic Kim regime is defector Hyeonseo Lee, whose book The Girl With Seven Names documents her experience. She talks about the indoctrination of living in North Korea and the revelations she experienced on leaving it behind. Her reminiscences, along with others and footage smuggled from the country, range from the chilling sight of public executions to the ridiculous minutiae of ‘poo collection’ and children’s books referring constantly to “American bastards”. These latter observations, while providing a little light relief in what is a very serious film, nevertheless also highlight the degree to which the dictatorship controls every aspect of life in the country.

The title also hints at another undercurrent of the film - the indoctrinated belief by those who live in North Korea that it is perfect. We’ve also seen footage of children clapping or performing on cue for the cameras, but Gavin’s film helps to bring home just how brutal the process is to make this happen. The effect of living under the Kims is also illustrated by Soyeon’s son, who seems to have mixed feelings about defection, and the escaping family’s gran, who genuinely believes Americans want to kill her and is vaguely bewildered as to why Gavin and her crew are so nice. A condemnation of a regime, a gripping story of resilience in the face of it and a testimony to those whose belief in helping people is so strong they are willing to risk themselves in the process.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2023
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Charting the journey and experiences of North Korean defectors.

Director: Madeleine Gavin

Year: 2023

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US

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