Harrowing stories have been told by those who’ve survived their escape from North Korea, but that struggle emerges with a startling urgency in director Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia with footage unlike any we’ve seen before. The film uses interviews with defectors and archival footage to provide historical context about the stringent control that North Korea’s security apparatus has over its citizens and how they’re bombarded and controlled by propaganda. But it’s the hidden camera and cellphone footage taken by defectors themselves that most terrifyingly attests to the horrors committed by the kleptocratic dynastic regime.
The on-the-grounds footage focuses primarily on Hyukchang Wu and his family, who at the start of the film are hiding along the border between China and North Korea. We witness their first contact with Seungeun Kim, a well-known pastor who, with minimal resources, has managed to help numerous people escape from North Korea. At the same time, Seungeun is also helping Soyeon Lee, a refugee who escaped a decade ago, to extract her now-teenage son.
Seungeun’s insights are particularly invaluable as he explains to the Wu family that he must secretly lead them through China, and then through Vietnam and Laos, to get to Thailand. It’s only there where they’ll be safe from governments that would extradite them to North Korea, as well as from ordinary citizens who might sell them to local traffickers. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, the Wus have been hiking for miles through mountainous terrain in the middle of the night when Hyukchang and Seungeun realize that the very brokers who’ve been enlisted by the trustworthy Seungeun to guide them to freedom have been leading them in circles and only agree to continue in the right direction after the Wus agree to pay more money.
Alongside the excruciating journeys of the Wus and Soyeon, Gavin intersperses archival and hidden camera footage that draws a stark contrast between the outward-facing North Korean state media and the everyday social reality that it writes over. Especially unsettling is a piece of propaganda in which children cheerfully engage in a classroom lecture about how evil the rest of the world is, particularly South Koreans and Americans. And the searing images of various gulags, public executions, and private beatings will not be easily forgotten.
While some of this footage, given its clearly contextualizing function, feels awkwardly placed at times, and the music cues can be too on the nose, the immediacy of Beyond Utopia makes those quibbles easy to get past. The Wu family’s 2,000-plus mile odyssey is nerve-wracking, and nowhere more eye-opening than when Hyukchang’s mother says that “nothing was bad” in North Korea, while her two grandchildren gleefully proclaim that Kim Jung Un is “the greatest person in the world.” It’s a bracing moment for how it speaks so succinctly to the chilling pull that the regime’s brainwashing tactics can have even on those trying to escape its clutches.
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