‘Beyond Utopia’ Is a Doc About North Korean Defectors – IndieWire

You may think you have a notion of how terrible it is to live in North Korea. You don’t. The media shows us military parades and atomic bomb tests. But many of the isolated country’s 26 million inhabitants are hungry or starving, and believe that America is their sworn enemy. It is impossible to cross the DMZ between North and South Korea, riddled with 2 million landmines, so anyone brave enough to defect must follow an elaborate route through China, which is friendly to North Korea, as well as several other hostile Communist countries, in order to reach safety in Thailand. And if a defector is caught, they go straight to the gulag, where they are beaten and tortured.

In the eye-opening “Beyond Utopia” (November 3, Roadside Attractions), from editor-turned-director Madeleine Gavin (“City of Joy”), which won the U.S. documentary audience award at Sundance 2023, we follow a heroic and fearless Christian pastor, Seungeun Kim, who since he defected from North Korea years ago, has become a pivotal member of the Underground Railroad, devoted to saving others from the horrors of life there. By his count, he has helped 1200 people to escape. Gavin tracks two narratives, as Pastor Kim steers the Roh family of five (including two children and an 80-year-old grandmother), with the help of 50 brokers, on a torturous journey over jungles, mountains, and rivers, through Communist countries China, Vietnam, and Laos before they reach safety in Thailand. He also tries to help a mother, Soyeon Lee, who having successfully defected to South Korea, struggles to bring her 17-year-old son to join her.

Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer"
NYAD. Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD. Cr.Liz Parkinson/Netflix ©2023

At a recent Q & A session moderated by CBS News correspondent Jo Ling Kent, Gavin admitted that after some reluctance to tackle the subject of North Korea, her deep research persuaded her to dive in, including hidden camera footage that had been brought out (some of which is in the film). “I realized that with everything I was reading and watching and discovering, there really was nothing where I felt the pulse of the people,” she said. “And so the more that I learned, the more that I felt this sense of outrage: ‘We have to make this movie, and we have to do it in a way where there is a story that is in the present.’”

On her second or third trip to Seoul she met Pastor Kim, “who opened up the world for us,” she said. “And also I discovered that some of the hidden camera footage I’d been looking at on the web was in fact from cameras that his network keeps along the border of North Korea in China and that people smuggle to North Korea.”

It took many months to win over Pastor Kim, he said on the panel, but her sincerity eventually worked. “For North Koreans who are fleeing, they’re worrying,” Kim said on the panel. “It’s all about life and death. And then with the Roh family, the timing was miraculous that it worked out this way, that they reached out after (Madeleine Gavin and I) established a relationship and finally decided to work with each other. And every step of the way she consulted with me and I could tell that she put their lives, the safety of the people first. So I was able to trust her.”

As much as the Roh story is riveting, dangerous and rigorous — often shot with iPhones by the participants themselves — the heartbreaking narrative is Soyeon Lee’s attempts to rescue her son, which we watch unfold in real time. She was willing to let the cameras share her trauma, she said on the panel. “When I first came to South Korea, I realized what freedom means. So after I experienced this freedom, of course, as a mother, I naturally wanted to bring my son out of North Korea to freedom. But I was not able to achieve that. And he was sent to political prison. How can I even call myself a mother, because I feel almost like a sinner for not being able to carry him into safety, into freedom? With every screening, I think, ‘right now, my son is in a camp, he’s probably getting beaten, he’s not getting his food, he is deprived of everything that I’m enjoying.’”

“Beyond Utopia”Cinetic

She participated so openly with the film because she wanted to bring awareness to everyone “of these camps and the human atrocities that have been committed in North Korea,” she said. “I’m hoping that somehow he’ll stay alive. And this will still somehow put pressure on the regime. My only goal is to just be able to spend time with my child, and have one meal with my son.”

Producer Sue Mi Terry, a Korean policy expert who has written articles, hosted workshops and conferences and testified in Congress about “what percentage of people suffer from malnutrition and food shortages and all of this,” said, “and it doesn’t resonate with people right now. This film is important because you may not remember the 120,000 people in political prison camps, but you will remember Soyeon and her story.”

Gavin expertly threads the two storylines, but also provides snippets of history and what it’s like to live in North Korea. “It was a process of experimentation with different structures,” she said. “But the more specific, the more universal. And I wanted to crack open that world. And that had to be a story that was in the present, that was vérité. With all the unknowns that came with that, the shooting was incredibly stressful for everybody. But also in the process of making the film, I realized how much we as Americans, and people around the world, don’t know about North Korea, not just what life is actually like inside, but even the history of how North Korea began. We needed some context. And with the Roh family, for instance, because we were following them in the moment, not knowing what was going to happen, there was no way to stop and develop character.”

“But I also wanted to give little tidbits of development, getting to know these people throughout the course of the film. So when we go out to an interstitial, some little thing about North Korea, when we come back to the family, we’ve learned something about them, because they have lived this. Not only was it a way to give context, and an understanding of what life is like in North Korea, and why people have to flee, but it was a way to get to know our characters before we could spend time sitting down with them.”

Gavin and Pastor Kim are hoping that “Beyond Utopia” will move the needle with awareness of what is really happening in North Korea. They’ve been moved by the audience response on the festival and promo circuit. “I’m not an actress. I’m not a famous person,” said Lee. “I’m an ordinary mother who wanted to save her son. And with people that cannot speak the same language — there’s a language barrier — just by just looking at each other, I can see that they understand me. And we are connected as mothers as fathers and as human beings.”

A still from Beyond Utopia by Madeleine Gavin, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Beyond Utopia”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As for the Roh family, they are resettled in South Korea, and have learned that Americans aren’t out to kill them all. “Mom is studying to be a social worker,” said Gavin. “Dad is working at a tofu factory, and both of the girls are doing really well. The youngest one is excelling at piano and they’re enjoying their life.”

“Beyond Utopia” is landing key documentary nominations on the road to the Oscars. The film nabbed four Critics Choice nods including Best Feature, and will vie for the Cinema Eye Honors audience award, among other potential nominations.

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