A nail-biting review of Beyond Utopia, which explores strategies for escaping North Korea.


The oppressive regime of North Korea has been a source of inspiration for numerous filmmakers, with notable examples being Claude Lanzmann’s Napalm and Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno, which delve into personal experiences and cultural beliefs. Other documentaries such as The Propaganda Game, The Lovers and the Despot, Liberation Day, and Assassins have also explored various aspects of North Korea. However, there has yet to be a film that chronicles one of the most peculiar events in North Korea’s recent history – the 2018 summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, who had previously threatened the country with severe retaliation. Interestingly, this well-made documentary on North Korea does not mention this significant event, despite it occurring within the timeline covered.

Beyond Utopia is a nail-bitingly tense account of the network of safe houses and “underground railroads” used by North Korean defectors to get to freedom, run by the South Korean human rights activist and Christian cleric Pastor Kim Sung-eun. (There is real escape footage here.) Despite the well-attested ideological iron grip exerted in North Korea (no one in this film uses the pro-regime term DPRK or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), there are in fact traffickers and brokers both there and in China who for a price are prepared to get people out.

The first half of the movie focuses on the emotional journey of a North Korean family who are secretly brought across the border into China by Pastor Kim’s organization. Once they arrive, they are assisted by Kim’s colleagues who help them disguise themselves as South Korean tourists. They are then guided through Vietnam and Laos, two communist countries that pose a potential threat of being sent back to North Korea, before finally reaching safety in Thailand. One particularly poignant and comical moment occurs when the elderly grandmother, still holding onto her admiration for the North Korean leadership, mistakes a flat-screen plasma TV for a blackboard used for teaching.

The second, more violent narrative of the movie follows a North Korean woman who managed to flee her country, but her son was caught and sent back for severe punishment after attempting to escape to China. According to informants, there is a possibility of extracting him again with the payment of additional bribes. However, the woman is suspicious of this plan and wonders if it is just a ploy by North Korea to lure her back and use her as a pawn in a humiliating show trial, with her son and elderly mother being forced to cooperate.

The movie would have benefited from more details. For instance, what is the exact amount of money charged by the traffickers? Also, where does the money originate from? Is it collected by the defectors’ loved ones in South Korea? Or does Pastor Kim collect donations for a never-ending fund? Nevertheless, it is an exceptional documentary.

Source: theguardian.com

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