If you have plans to watch Beyond Utopia—a documentary film that peels back the layers on the secret life of defectors trying to escape North Korea’s totalitarian regime—prepare to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The documentary, directed by Madeleine Gavin, takes viewers on the harrowing journeys of several North Korean defectors seeking freedom and reunification with family members who have already escaped the authoritarian regime. Viewers follow a family of five, the Ro family, traveling via car and through transportation hubs, dodging police, and climbing through jungles in the middle of the night, all in the name of seeking freedom from North Korea.
Pastor Sung-eun Kim, who has been working quietly for years on what he calls an “underground railroad” to help North Koreans plan their escapes, is featured heavily, as he charts their course on the escape voyage, shares tactics for staying hidden from police in China, and guides them to safe houses along the way. Kim relies on a network of brokers throughout China, Vietnam, Laos, and all the way to Thailand, including a broker who only goes by the name of “Mr. Hwang,” and in some cases, bribed police officers in China.
Another life viewers get to peek inside is that of So Yeon Lee, a North Korean defector who has previously successfully escaped from the North who, at the time of filming, was working to help her son, Che Ong, escape through a network of unnamed brokers.
The journey is treacherous for both groups. Lee’s son and the family of five—an 80-year-old grandmother and her daughter and son-in law and their two children—encounter their fair share of hiccups on the trek.
Viewers of Beyond Utopia, which is in select theaters as of this weekend, will gain a unique front seat to the incredible and perilous path North Koreans must take if they choose to chase freedom. If they want to leave, passing through to the South is nearly impossible, as the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world and is littered with landmines. Many opt to escape by heading to North Korea’s border with China. But if they make it across the river and into China without getting killed or spotted by North Korean border guards, then comes the long and secretive trek to Southeast Asia.
Just as they had to deal with their neighbors, teachers, and fellow citizens spying on them while they were in North Korea, the journey through China and neighboring countries includes sussing out which brokers in China are ready to sell them out to the Chinese police, and which ones will actually help usher them to safety.
“Crossing the border from North Korea is not the hardest part right now. It’s once the defectors enter China that’s so dangerous,” Pastor Kim explained on a call with a broker in the film.
In some cases, people end up selling women off into sex trafficking or organ trafficking, Pastor Kim said.
Pastor Kim frets that the Ro family, if found by unfriendly brokers, could be turned in for a hefty reward as a group. The team heard that the Chinese police were offering a 15,000 Yuan ($2,055) reward for a family, which could equate to about six months of wages.
“They don’t care at all,” Pastor Kim said of his network in China. “In the end they don’t view them as people. They view them as money.”
Snaking red lines on grey and black maps show the audience just how far the defectors have to go throughout the documentary, which peppers historical context from expert guests and footage showing life inside North Korea taken by hidden cameras throughout.
Pastor Kim shares his inner world with the filmmakers and the audience during the trip to help the Ro family to safety, bringing a unique level of intimacy. He shares memories about the death of his ailing son, which took place while he was in a meeting coordinating someone’s escape from North Korea, he said. At the time, he and his wife promised to dedicate their lives to saving North Koreans since they couldn’t save their son from his ill health.
At other times, the pastor and his wife cook together while hashing out whether their emotions are getting in the way of them making good decisions in choosing which smuggling missions they can accept, weighing their desire to help everyone they can against the likelihood that the mission is too dangerous depending on conditions including rising river levels or numbers of police.
Interviews with the family members as they learn what life outside North Korea is like—and as they realize they may have been brainwashed— provide an intense look at their experience.
“I felt like all my wishes would come true if only my country was better off… we must really work hard to make Marshal Kim Jong Un even a little bit happy,” the 80-year-old grandmother said, growing tearful.
She adds that she can’t help but get the feeling now, however, that she and the entire country of North Korea have been misled, the uncertainty in her eyes palpable.
“My government has lied to me somehow,” she said.
The film brings users back and forth between beautiful panoramic views of cities, documentary-style interviews, and grainy visuals from handheld shots as the defectors make progress on their voyage, providing viewers an intense cadence that mirrors the ups and downs of the difficult journey.
The film stresses that it contains “no recreations” and that footage comes from the brokers, the defectors, and the filmmakers alone.
From shaky scenes of green light unfurling on the vast Mekong River, rippling in the dark of the night, to close-ups of family members hearing both good updates and bad on calls, to serene scenes of safe houses and meals along the way, the contrast in visuals, like the documentary overall, is gripping.
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