Beyond Utopia

There are over 1 million land mines in the heavily guarded DMZ between North and South Korea, so anyone hoping to defect must choose an arduous route through China, crossing Changbai Mountain, continuing through other countries in Southeast Asia, many, like China, friendly towards North Korea, Chinese soldiers willing to shoot a North Korean for some extra vacation time.  Using no recreations, director Madeleine Gavin (“City of Joy”) charts two harrowing tales, that of a mother, Soyeon, trying to get her 16 year-old son to join her in the South, and that of the Roh family, an 80 year-old grandmother, two adult parents and their two little girls shepherded by Pastor Kim and his network of brokers to a land “Beyond Utopia.”

Laura's Review: A

As is made abundantly clear by Gavin, most Westerners only know what the Kim regime, currently led by Kim Jong Un, want us to know about North Korea, mainly its military might and its millions of civilians largely seen performing in perfect unison.  What we do not hear about is how North Korean children are forced to practice these routines for hours on end on hard concrete, often suffering horrific injuries or terrible punishment for imperfection.  This is a country where the Bible is banned so the Kim patriarchy can co-opt Old Testament stories, the people brainwashed into worshipping their ‘Dear Leader’ as a god who walks on water.  Every waking moment is spent in glorifying their country and the Kims’ nuclear armament is North Korea’s one top priority.

In fact, human rights abuses in North Korea are so unparalleled, their only comparison is to Nazi Germany, and yet the world allows 26 million to exist under these conditions.  We hear one defector tell of being forced to cut trees 130 feet tall and 13 feet in width, their felling maiming men who are left to die on a mountainside with broken limbs and exposed entrails.  But as Hyeonseo Lee, who defected 20 years ago relates, imagine waking up on another planet.  Her countrymen are so cut off from the outside world, they know of no other existence and, in fact, believe they are serving a godlike leader.  It is mandatory, for example, to reserve one’s most prestigious living space for portraits of the Kims which can be inspected for dust by white gloved soldiers at any time of day or night.

When we first meet Pastor Kim, who can no longer travel to China for fear of being kidnapped, something South Korea warns him about even traveling to Thailand, he is hearing about how a family of defectors was caught because the North Koreans implanted a tracker in a child’s toy.  The man who ironically bears the same surname of North Korean oppressors has saved some 1,200 people to date and is married for a former North Korean army officer who was attracted to him because he shared the ‘big belly’ of her former leader.  While Gavin checks in with Soyeon, who is initially given very encouraging news about her son Cheong’s chances, Kim coordinates getting the Roh family to safety, Gavin actually embedded with them for part of the journey.  We’ll see them apparently traveling in circles within the mountains as brokers demand more money, footage shot with camera phones and information exchanged in short, dangerous phone calls.  When they get to their first safe house they will marvel at such niceties as electrical lighting, fresh fruit and toilet paper (Hyeonseo Lee has already told us that all North Koreans must turn over their own waste to the government which uses it to fertilize crops – neighbors have been known to steal each other’s in order to avoid punishment.). 

Gavin interviews family members about Kim Jong Un and is told he is the greatest, the grandmother only gradually realizing this American is actually nice and not out to kill her as she has been told all her life.  Has her government been lying to her?   (Hyeonseo Lee tells us there is no such word as ‘American’ in North Korea, only ‘American Bastard.’)  While the Roh family ends up in a good place, the same cannot be said for Soyeon, who learns her son probably had no intention of defecting but of bringing her back home.  For that sin he’s been sent to a gulag, already severely injured and probably fated for death, and her hysterical mother is so fearful she wants nothing to do with any of it.  Soyeon, free in South Korea, contemplates suicide.

I thought I had been well informed about North Korea by 2016's "Under The Sun," an Icarus Films documentary by a Russian filmmaker embedded in a propaganda situation who managed to smuggle out truths.  That is a noteworthy, revelatory piece of work, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  “Beyond Utopia” is a must see, a much harsher and horrifying look at what conditions are like under the man former President Trump claims ‘loves his people.’

Robin's Review: A-

What we in the West knows about what is happening in North Korea to the people living under the oppressive yoke of dictatorship of Kim Jong-Un could fit on a single page of paper. So, a story that chronicles different families trying to escape that oppression is pretty remarkable and well-told in “Beyond Utopia.”

Getting to know about the goings on in the Hermit Kingdom is a daunting task when there is no media, telephonic or, even, semaphore flags to signal with the outside world. In Madeleine Gavin’s remarkable documentary, shot on hand-held iPhones, is all the more incredible in that much of the early footage was actually shot, despite the dangers, inside North Korea.

The stories that are covered here are about harrowing journeys across multiple countries – from the dangers of trying to escape and fear recapture in North Korea, to the “brokers” who coordinate the illegal treks through arduous political and physical obstacles of arrest, jail and deportation back to the North, a death sentence. Gavin’s cameras follow Pastor Kim, the film’s “hero,” as he works tirelessly to help those fleeing the terrible conditions in North Korea.

In one of the stories, a family of five – mom, dad, 6 and 8 year old daughters and their 80 year old grandma – must cross into China, traverse that huge country, all the time fearing capture, get into Vietnam, then Laos and, finally, Thailand. Their hope is to get to South Korea and start a new life. Their journey is exciting, dangerous and arduous beyond description and you hang in there with them.

Another story told follows a mother, So-yeon Lee, who was able to escape the dangers of the North but was forced to leave her 7-year old son behind. Now, 10 years later, she is still working with the brokers inside the north – using bribery and other methods to get the release of her son. Whereas the former story is one of hope for a family, So-yeon’s tale is one of highs and lows where her hopes are raised, then dashed, with regularity.

The viewer also gets a pretty concise history of North Korea, from the Japanese occupation in the 1920s and through World War II, to the rise of dictator Kim Il-Sung and the iron rule of the Kim family, the Korea War and the country’s 70 year rule over the oppressed people of that land.

So, we get a solid history lesson, one story of a family’s hope and another of a woman desperately trying to free her son. We also learn about the subtle and diligent efforts by Pastor Kim to help free his people one at a time. The combination of personal stories and a well-done documentary on the oppressive regime are a striking pairing.

Roadside Attractions released "Beyond Utopia" in theaters on 11/3/23.