American audiences are more than aware of the threat that Kim Jong-un represents as the dictator of North Korea. We lived through the presidency of Donald Trump, where the first year or so was spent antagonizing the “Dear Leader” of the nuclear-armed regime, all but daring him to attack us, before cozying up to the madman and having the weirdest bromance ever seen. We’ve heard hundreds of horror stories about the draconian violence exacted against any perceived dissent contrasted with the extreme poverty and famine suffered by the general public. And that’s likely just skimming the surface, as the country is so insular that it’s nigh impossible for independent media to report from within its borders, and Kim’s government keeps an iron grip on domestic outlets, banning all but state-run enterprises.
Still, there are a stalwart few who manage to give the world a peek into the DPRK’s reality, mostly by getting the fuck out when they have the chance. That is the focus of Beyond Utopia, an absolutely thrilling documentary from Madeleine Gavin. Using first-hand footage (onscreen text emphasizes that there are no recreations in this, and that all recordings come from the people on the ground) with some history peppered in for context, the film is an expert look at the harrowing conditions that ordinary people have to go through in order to escape what is arguably the most oppressive power on the planet.
Most of the action happens via Kim Sung-eun, a pastor living in South Korea, who uses a network of brokers and middlemen to facilitate defectors trying to get out of the North. Most of the crossings happen at the Yula River, which provides a natural border between North Korea and China. However, given that China props up Kim Jong-un’s position, and because east and southeast Asia are filled with communist countries that have at least an alliance of convenience, this slightly less dangerous border (as opposed to the literal 38th Parallel dividing the Korean Peninsula) can often be even more deadly, as those who successfully make the crossing can still be apprehended and repatriated, with devastating consequences.
Sung-eun operates a charity that helps pay for safe passage through these countries, sometimes accompanying the refugees for part of the journey, though even he has to be extremely careful, as he’s considered a fugitive in some nations for his participation in these defections. Still, he does his best to help as many people as possible, opting for a controlled, structured program that offers the safest passage to freedom. However, because he literally cannot be on the scene when the crossings take place, he must rely on more mercenary influences, and they can be dispiritingly self-interested and undisciplined, creating emergency situations.
This is where our two principal families come into play. On the one hand, you have Lee So-yeon, a middle-aged woman who safely defected a decade previous. Now she is coordinating with Sung-eun to get her teenage son out. She hasn’t seen him in over 10 years, as her ex-husband has kept him on a short leash, calling her a traitor for leaving, and forbidding the boy from having any contact with her (not that there are ample opportunities, as North Korea operates on a closed cellular network largely inaccessible from outside the country). She mostly has to sit by the phone and wait for updates, nervously awaiting news on her son’s fate after a smuggler jumps the gun and moves him across the Yula a few days ahead of schedule.
On the other side you have the Roh family, consisting of a mother, father, two young girls, and a grandmother. When Sung-eun learns of them, they have already crossed the Yula, and are hiding near the mountainous forest on the Chinese side. A farmer has discovered them and is temporarily sheltering them on his property, filming their pleas for help on his phone. Normally Sung-eun would have told them to wait until all the pieces were in place for their secure transit, but that’s no longer an option. Now he must force the issue and see them through to several safe houses before a dangerous and illegal crossing from Laos to Thailand, where they can officially seek help to be sent to South Korea and resettle. Yeah, imagine going almost 5,000 miles roundabout, through jungles, mountains, rivers, and cities filled with law enforcement, wild animals, human traffickers, and all sorts of other obstacles, just to wind up about 200 miles from where you started, and yet it’s still the easier option than the direct route south. Yeesh.
Both of these stories are absolutely heart-wrenching, and they basically unfold in real time. We get constant rotation between Lee and the Rohs, filling us in on the excruciating details of what they endure, both physically and mentally. And for the bulk of the film, you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. At any moment the smugglers accompanying the Rohs may decide that the venture is no longer profitable and turn them in. At any moment Sung-eun could be discovered and apprehended. At any moment Lee’s son could be sent back to North Korea and imprisoned, or worse.
And what’s scarier still is that for some of those involved, you’re never quite sure where their loyalties truly lie. Both of the Roh daughters and the grandmother talk in glowing terms about Kim Jong-un, as well as the previous two generations of totalitarians in the family, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. The grandmother in particular feels like Jong-un is doing his best and that it’s disloyal for them to leave, but she went along because she wasn’t going to let her family go alone and never see them again. That familial love won out, but only just. Similarly, as the situation for Lee’s son becomes more dire, it’s heavily suggested that he had no intention of defecting at all, but that in his adolescent mind he had some cockamamie idea that he could get his mother to come back to North Korea. It’s as sad as it is completely understandable, given the DPRK’s propaganda machine.
Littered throughout the proceedings are brief asides where we learn the history of North Korea from the end of World War II up to the present, including how the Kim family gained power, the increasing atrocities they’ve committed, and their obsession with maintaining control through nuclear proliferation at all costs. None of this information is particularly new, however. For example, journalist Barbara Demick (who focuses on the North) is heavily featured, as is defector Lee Hyeon-seo, seen in the film giving a TED Talk about her upbringing. Both of these women were spotlighted on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver during a segment on North Korea from 2017, including Hyeon-seo’s anecdote used in the movie about a math lesson where the killing of “American Bastards” is used to demonstrate the basic idea of subtraction.
Most of these diversions are used as an opportunity for the audience to catch its collective breath, because the tension in these stories is more than palpable, and in that regard, they can be a welcome respite. Still, I wish there weren’t so many of them, or that they were used to convey newer or more insightful information. For instance, I would have loved an analysis of why people aren’t allowed to leave in the first place. Common sense says that a dictator needs a permanent oppressed class of people to perpetuate his wealth, because if they all leave he’s got no one to persecute, but a deep dive into the logistics of that would have been appreciated.
There are a couple other elements that don’t quite work as well as they should. We don’t get full epilogues for those involved in the story, for instance. Even if it’s a line of text saying, “As of this release, we don’t have any further information on X’s whereabouts” is a satisfactory conclusion to the enthralling journey we’ve taken with these people. We do get some information, but not enough to consider things truly complete. From a pure production standpoint, there are scenes where former prisoners share images and drawings they’ve made of their time in the harshest of incarcerations, and they’re quite moving. However, the paper is white, as are the subtitles, so several lines of speech are partially obscured, leaving your comprehension up to your ability to read only the bottom half of some words. This was an unforced error on the editors’ part, especially since knowing that almost all the dialogue would be in Korean, a crystal clear translation was needed.
But I don’t really want to harp on the few missteps this film has, because it’s stellar in almost every other aspect. Rarely do you see a documentary as incessantly gripping as Beyond Utopia. It not only puts a very human face on the barrage of headlines we’ve seen over the years, it sits you alongside those humans as they take the most daring risk of their lives, all for the chance to breathe the free air that we often take for granted. In a world where repression and authoritarianism is resurging, it’s absolutely crucial to bear witness to the real cost of the strongman’s will, and to the dedication of those working in the shadows to subvert it, not for their own social and political gain, but for the basic cause of human decency and empathy.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think you’d be able to escape from North Korea if needed? Would you help someone else get out? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!