THE STORY – Follows families as they attempt to escape oppression in North Korea, revealing a world most of us have never seen.
THE CAST – Sengeun Kim & Hyeonseo Lee
THE TEAM – Madeleine Gavin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
“Beyond Utopia” begins with the stark words that no recreations are being used anywhere in the film. “OK,” you might think. “That’s nice to know.” But when the film unfolds, and the events we see are so urgently and thrillingly captured as they happened, you think back and cannot help but be astonished.
“Utopia” is North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s pet name for his country, a blatant attempt to convince his people and the rest of the world that the North is a kind of paradise on earth. The reality, of course, is very different. When we in the West think about North Korea, it’s usually Kim’s latest round of nuclear saber-rattling and his goose-stepping parades. But rarely have we been able to glimpse the other side of North Korea — the poverty and daily suffering being borne by the country’s people as a direct result of Kim’s brutality.
Filmmaker Madeleine Gavin set out to tell that story, at first through the eyes of the author and North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee. But in researching Lee’s story, she was directed to Pastor Seungeun Kim, a South Korean cleric who operates what is essentially an Underground Railroad for citizens of the North who want to defect to the West. When she learned of Rev. Lee’s elaborate network of brokers who, at his direction, help travelers navigate their dangerous route through China, Vietnam, and Laos — Communist countries all — with no guarantee of their safe arrival, Gavin knew she had her story. And what a story “Beyond Utopia” turned out to be.
Pastor Kim, who over the past decade has helped more than 1,000 North Koreans escape to freedom, is regularly besieged by requests from those who seek his help, but he has found two new cases that have particularly caught his eye. Defector Soyeon Lee, who, a decade ago, had to leave her son behind in North Korea so as to make the journey to the West, asks Kim’s help to smuggle him out so that mother and son can be reunited.
An even more intriguing case is that of the Ro family — Mom, Dad, two preschool-aged kids, and their 80-year-old grandmother — who could present Pastor Kim’s most challenging case yet. Because he would be arrested on sight if seen in any of the Communist countries through which they must pass, Pastor Kim cannot travel with the Ro family and must leave their safety in the hands of his series of brokers. Documenting the journey also proved challenging for Gavin since the defection journey had to be operated clandestinely, and a documentary film crew in tow would only endanger all involved. So the brokers and the family were given iPhones and flip-phone cameras to document the trek. The resulting footage may not be pretty or polished, but it’s real and absolutely riveting.
The real-life footage reveals just how arduous and dangerous the journey was for the family, from navigating rivers at night in rickety boats to climbing hill after hill in the darkness, never entirely sure whether over the next hill, they will be faced with capture or even death. The mere sight of an 80-year-old trying to negotiate perilous footholds on a mountain in the dark had me about jumping out of my seat with stress, footage that the filmmakers have fashioned into a shape that lands with maximum impact.
It is only when the family reaches safe houses and manages to exhale that we get to know them, which may provide the biggest surprise of all in “Beyond Utopia.” Not only are they not rabble-rousers or freedom fighters — in fact, they’re strangely ambivalent about their defection, apprehensive about their new life in the West or whether they’ll even like it. The little ones, for example, who have grown up listening to Christian-based stories retold with Kim Jong-un replacing Jesus consider the dictator a god, and Grandma, who has had decades of political indoctrination, still believes Kim to be an intelligent man and a great leader. She’s defecting only to stay with her family. Still, despite their differences, they come together as a family to move on to the final (and potentially most dangerous) leg of their journey.
If there is a problem with the balance of stories in “Beyond Utopia,” it’s that the footage of the Ro family saga is so intense that the film’s other elements tend to pale by comparison. The wait that Soyeon Lee must endure to hear news from her son, for example, is heartbreaking, but her waiting by the phone lacks the visual impact of the family’s story. Similarly, a series of cutaways to experts on the North offering valuable background on the region’s history is illuminating, but at the end of the day, they’re talking heads. We want to get back to Grandma as soon as we can.
What Gavin, her crew, and the brokers & family members who filmed the journey have accomplished is remarkable, offering a compelling (and, at times, terrifying) glimpse of the lengths to which oppressed people will go to get a piece of the life that so many of us take for granted. “Beyond Utopia” offers that stark reminder as powerfully as any film in recent memory.