There’s a popular song in North Korea called “Nothing to Envy.” Lines include, “Who can ever break our strength? / We are not afraid of any storm or stress” and “Our home is the bosom of the Party / We are all brothers and sisters / We envy nothing in the world.” Though they lack running water, indoor plumbing, and basic freedom of thought — to name just a few things — North Koreans are taught to believe that they genuinely have it better than any other country on earth.
It’s particularly arresting, then, to watch the North Korean defectors in “Beyond Utopia,” a new documentary by Madeleine Gavin (“City of Joy”), uncover the lies on which they were raised. By expertly weaving together archival footage, animation, hidden camera video, original interviews, and footage from defectors and their allies, Gavin shows the heartbreaking reality facing those in one of the most oppressive countries in the world.
The film focuses on two defectors working to free their family members from North Korea. After a difficult journey out of her home country, Soyeon Lee hopes to help free the son she left behind ten years ago. Hyukchang Wu’s family has spontaneously fled to the Chinese border, where they’re hiding out in search of help. Both enlist Pastor Seungeun Kim, a Christian South Korean who learned how to help citizens defect from North Korea by aiding his own wife.
Escapees face a nearly impossible journey. As Gavin deftly explains, because the border between North and South Korea contains some two million landmines, defectors must travel through China and several other communist countries — where, if they’re caught, they’ll be returned to North Korea — before they are truly safe. They have to trek over mountains and rivers, all while evading potential captors and entrusting their lives to brokers who see them as paychecks rather than people. Along the way, Kim says, travelers may be caught and sold for their organs. Young female defectors can be sold into prostitution or forced marriages.
As Lee anxiously waits for news of her son and Wu’s family embarks on their treacherous trip, Gavin, who also edited the film, intersperses their stories with information about North Korea’s history, culture, and politics. One defector describes his horrifying experience in a gulag, which Gavin illustrates with chilling drawings by Kwon Hyo Jin. Hyeonseo Lee, a defector whose memoir, “The Girl with Seven Names,” became a New York Times bestseller, speaks about her upbringing and propaganda-laden primary education. The film explains why North Koreans are taught to revile Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese people and why the Bible is forbidden.
The escaping family confirms these claims. Two little girls insist that Kim Jong Un is “the greatest person in the world.” Their grandmother, who didn’t want to leave North Korea, is shocked to discover that Americans can be friendly and kind. In a Vietnamese safe house, the family marvels at the working lights and running water. The father describes it as “heaven on earth.”
“Beyond Utopia” is so full of fascinating information that it can occasionally feel overwhelming. Some interviewees zip by without time for viewers to remember their names or roles. For the most part, though, Gavin has masterfully wrangled an enormous story, creating a documentary that is every bit as informative as it is emotional. You’re just as likely to feel your jaw dropping as you are your eyes welling up. The film is certainly told from a particular activist perspective, and other experts on North Korea may disagree with its staunch criticism. But given all the firsthand accounts and footage that make up “Beyond Utopia,” that seems unlikely.
At the end of the day, the most unbelievable thing about “Beyond Utopia” is that it is a documentary, not a thriller. This is a staggering achievement, the sort of nonfiction project that takes unfathomable guts and skill. “Beyond Utopia” hardly shies away from atrocity, but its greatest asset is its empathy. It would be all too easy to dismiss North Koreans, who have been raised since birth to think of outsiders as subhuman. Gavin rightly refuses to fall into that trap, and as a result, viewers have the privilege of seeing every facet of the defector experience: confusion, gratitude, anger, and guilt. If you, too, have been blissfully unaware of North Korean oppression, this belongs at the top of your watchlist. [A]