(The 2023 Sundance Film Festival takes place January 19-29 in and around Park City, UT and virtually. As always, Hammer to Nail has you covered with tons of movie reviews like Melanie Addington’s review of the doc Little Richard: I Am Everything. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Asking its audience to bear witness to atrocities, Beyond Utopia provides a glimpse into secretive North Korea using smuggled footage from refugees who managed to flee the country. In America, the term underground railroad invokes memories of a past, a history, not of the present. But for director Madeleine Gavin, working with South Korean Pastor Seungeun Kim, also a North Korean defector, we follow his story as he helps others escape. Learning how to get his wife smuggled out of the country, he realized, he must use the knowledge to help others. With help from many anonymous others, he helped with the underground railroad that saved over 1,000 people from escaping the country.
What little we know of North Korea, we do know that the citizens are taught from childhood to follow their authoritarian leader Kim Jung Un. Religion is banned, particularly Western religions, and people can be murdered for owning a Bible. In 2021 North Korea tightened borders even more with no outside food or support. Human Rights Watch has often warned of the repression of citizens including no access to the outside world.
The country was colonized by Japan in 1910 and much of the culture was eradicated before they lost World War II in 1945. As part of the settlement, the country was split in half with America supporting the Southern half and Russia the upper half, with the intent to bring it back together once restored fully. Instead, the people that rose in power began to borrow from religious texts to make their leader a God-like figure and perpetuate fear.
From the family we follow on their journey to escape, we learn even more about the prison camp system set up for anyone who breaks even a slight rule, the lack of food and no access to running water with most families wondering if they will die from lack of hydration most days. We learn of people who were sent to a prison camp for tearing a piece of newspaper that happened to have Jung Un’s face on it. We learn that despite all of the crises they live in, they believe that if they just work harder for Kim Jung Un, things will get better.
The documentary cites, the only time the economy succeeded in North Korea was during the temporary period that the USSR funded them until the Soviet country broke up in 1991. After that time, North Korea began to backslide and has never recovered, despite claiming that if citizens work harder it will all turn around.
There is something to bear witness that makes it hard to ignore the suffering of others. Despite news articles, despite headlines about the mysterious country, there is almost a way to ignore it until this film. The footage is unbearable to watch and sheds light on the reality of the citizens being kept prisoner to the whims of a dangerous government.
While the camera video work is spotty due to using cell phones on the refugees and smuggling the microchips out over five years, it is gripping, a real-life thriller that captivates but also enlightens us. And while one story inspires us, another from a mother named Soyeon shows us the real consequences of what happens when the escape does not work.
Soyeon escaped North Korea and was working with brokers, people who help with the escape for a lot of money, to get her 17-year-old son with her. Her mother remained in North Korea. When something goes wrong, he is sent back from China to North Korea. Refugees must escape through the Yula River in China due to the border between the Koreas being so locked down with over two million land mines. The path the Pastor helps people cross is through Vietnam and Laos before you make it to Thailand. Due to the three countries being Communist, all will turn you back to North Korea. So to make it, the journey, on foot, takes days and has great peril. Also, most are at the whims of brokers who only care about the money and often can leave you stranded and demand more money.
For Yeonmi Park, a TED speaker and North Korean who escaped the country at 13, the survivor’s guilt is enormous. The ability to see loved ones or communicate is strong but knowing that they are dying or starving is unbearable. Knowing that many can never get out and never be de-programmed.
But despite the harrowing story that ends well for at least one family, the director films the Pastor turning away many during COVID due to how unsafe it is to smuggle anyone out. For many, the worldwide pandemic became their death sentence, not because they got the virus, but because without escaping North Korea, anyone affiliated with someone that had escaped, was to be sent to labor camps.
As the credits roll, the director chose to use additional smuggled footage of those still in North Korea interspersed between credits. The faces of those left behind. Those unable to be helped. Those who will be left to die. But the documentary shows the power of an image and hopefully will be a catalyst for real change.
The film won Best Audience Award for US Documentary Competition at Sundance 2023 and replays January 28-30 on the website. On the same week that the film world premiered, word got out that the capitol in North Korea is under lockdown due to a “respiratory disease.”
– Melanie Addington
2023 Sundance Film Festival; Madeleine Gavin; Beyond Utopia documentary film review