The world’s bad actor states are known for the disturbing news they regularly produce. But only the isolated, propaganda-fueled tyranny of North Korea seems to inspire reporting steeped in the strange – thanks in part to the dangerous whims of its current leader and the chatter of America’s former president.
Enter the urgent mission of Madeleine Gavin’s documentary “Beyond Utopia,” a reminder that people’s lives there are constantly at risk. It puts us right in the heart of a dangerous 2019 attempt by a North Korean family of five, and separately a teenage boy and a mother in Seoul, to escape the oppressive rule of Kim Jong Un. Leading their efforts is a devout pastor in South Korea with extensive contacts in the underground railroad for defectors, plus his own scars from years of this dangerous work.
Between the intensity of the moment and the glimpses of reality inside a covert regime (the footage was shot secretly with clandestine cameras), the film creates a shocking, devastating counterpoint to any North Korean narrative that projects the strange at the expense of its suffering citizens. Documentaries with life-or-death stakes, not to mention broader appeal in our increasingly volatile geopolitical world, don’t get much more edgy or heartbreaking than “Beyond Utopia.” At the same time, the film is inspiring about the lengths people will go to for a better life.
The Rohs — husband and wife, their two young children and an elderly grandmother — had been wandering for five days on Changbai Mountain just across the Yalu River that separates China and North Korea when a farmer’s smartphone video of the desperate-seeming family reached Pastor Seungeun Kim in Seoul. The filmmakers had won Kim’s trust for a separate North Korea-themed project when he gave them permission to film as he guided the Rohs’ journey and also tried to help a woman named Soyeon Lee get her teenage son out.
Crossing the river border, we learn, is only the beginning of the danger: the path requires you to traverse the length of China, cross Vietnam and Laos, before real safety is achieved by entering Thailand. Any time before then, the authorities could have caught the Rohs and deported them back to a North Korea that was taking brutal revenge on defectors. This picture of the dictatorship’s treatment of infidels, as described by interviews with experts such as US official Sue Mi Terry, author Barbara Demick and defector-activist Hyeonseo Lee, is more chilling than you might imagine.
Following the Rohs’ progress (which includes a particularly harrowing nighttime Mekong river crossing in an overcrowded, unstable boat) and the starkly different struggle of anxious mother Soyeon watching over her son matches the raw emotional intensity of a Barbara Kopple immersion doc crossed with a Paul Greengrass impressive work. Its strength is further highlighted by Gavin’s portrait of the determined, dedicated savior at its center, Kim, a genuine hero who can somehow separate the joys, sorrows and threats of his life to be a steadfast beacon for those North Koreans communicating with him. With this pastor’s poise and practicality, the rugged justice of his calling creates a compelling contrast to the impenetrable martyrdom presented in another darkly compelling piece of nonfiction this season, “The Mission.” (Clearly not all faith-fueled devotions are equal in value or risk.)
But plan wisely, medic lovers, your double feature – when it comes to your tolerance for neck-tightening materials, your mileage may vary. Know that “Beyond Utopia” is ultimately more than the harsh sum of its participants’ plight and the turmoil they are willing to endure. Its engine is one of hope and belief, against all odds, that the impasse between mass indoctrination and an open society can be bridged, and that the desires and fears of everyday people who suffer from the actions of a powerful few should not be ignored.
In Korean and English, with English subtitles
Assessment: PG-13, for thematic material, violent content and disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Game: Now at Lumiere Cinema, Laemmle NoHo 7, Laemmle Town Center 5, Laemmle Monica