A classic case of a documentary filmmaker not trusting her material, N.C. Heikin’s Kimjongilia augments its interviews of a handful of North Korean refugees with a bevy of split screens, isolated close-ups of its subjects’ eyes and mouths, and a running commentary provided by a pair of interpretative dancers. As the refugees unburden themselves of their brutal experiences under Kim Il-Sung and, later, Kim Jong-Il, Heikin repeatedly indulges the urge to illustrate their words, so a subject’s recounting of a foggy nautical escape from the country is counterpointed by an abstract shot of a cloud formation, while, as another defector explains how he was inspired to flee a labor camp by reading a smuggled copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, Heikin interpolates footage of the screen version of Dumas’s novel into her film. When a third subject, a concert pianist, relates how his sole anxiety while being tortured was that his hands not be damaged, the director cuts to a close-up of him banging away on a piano to remind us of the reason for his concern.
It’s not that Heikin’s directorial choices never feel aesthetically motivated, but they often register as an unnecessary distraction from, rather than a useful augmentation to, her subjects’ testimony. These accounts—the film’s anguished heart—not only indulge the expected horror stories of torture, malnutrition, and murder, but reveal the systematic brainwashing that established a godlike cult of personality around North Korea’s leaders while leaving the entire country in ignorance of the outside world, a state of affairs that Heikin reinforces through the inclusion of choice archival material, chiefly propaganda films and footage of the country’s nationalist pageantry.
Tales of daring escape are tempered by the reality that even when fleeing to China (the most frequent destination for defectors since the border with South Korea is too heavily fortified), refugees live under the constant threat of repatriation and jail time—the last punishment forcefully communicated by a broken, mentally unstable subject recounting the 18-hour work days he was subjected to while being continually exposed to asbestos. In the end, the testimony is too often broken up into little minute-long snippets for easy digestion, but taken as whole, these accounts bear stirring witness to a country beset by decades of human rights violations that have left millions dead and millions more in a state of subjection. It’s just not clear what exactly stands to be gained by counterpointing a woman’s harrowing tale of being lured into sex slavery with a four-way split screen of a female dancer in a traffic cop uniform flopping around on the floor.