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Beyond Utopia (2023) — Movie Review

Movies & TV

By Steven C.

- Dec 3, 2023

Our world is a tapestry of incredible beauty and profound horror, and one of its most harrowing threads is North Korea. Governed by a rigid authoritarian regime, the country strictly controls its citizens' access to information and entertainment. North Korean defectors, upon reaching South Korea - one of the few Asian nations accepting such refugees - undergo an extensive process akin to deprogramming, where they unlearn government-propagated myths, such as the supposed divinity of Kim Jong Il.

"Beyond Utopia," directed by Madeleine Gavin, offers a stark and often startling exploration of the lives of disenchanted North Koreans who risk everything to defect. The journey is fraught with unimaginable dangers. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is impenetrable, forcing defectors to venture north into China. Here, they face the risk of being captured and sent back to North Korea, where severe punishment awaits. Others fall prey to human traffickers or rely on brokers who arrange their perilous journey through China to reach safe havens like Thailand, all for a hefty fee.

The film's authenticity is underscored at the outset, stating that the footage, including the harrowing experiences of the Ro family, is genuine, with no dramatizations. This rawness extends to archival footage, including actual executions – a disturbing yet critical element of the narrative.

Gavin intertwines interviews with notable individuals like Lee Heyeon-Seo, author of "The Girl with Seven Names" and a human rights activist, providing a personal lens into the defector experience. The film also follows Soyeon Lee's heart-wrenching attempt to reunite with her son, still trapped in North Korea, with the help of Pastor Seungeun Kim, who collaborates with brokers to facilitate defections.

In addition to personal stories, "Beyond Utopia" delves into North Korea's complex history. It suggests that Kim Il Sung, Stalin’s protégé and the supposed architect of North Korea, struggled with the Korean language during his early rule, a point contested by other accounts. The film highlights the country's descent into economic disaster following the USSR's collapse, leading to widespread famine and an intensified focus on weapons development to maintain the regime's power, all while tightening its grip on the population.

The documentary makes a startling revelation – North Korea's state mythology is akin to a plagiarized version of the Christian Bible, so much so that the Bible itself is banned. This point underscores the extent to which ideology and mythology intertwine in the country's governance, raising profound questions about the nature of ideology and pathology.

"Beyond Utopia" doesn’t aim for high-minded analysis or exceptional filmmaking; it doesn't need to. The power of the film lies in its raw depiction of the dire reality faced by North Koreans, both within the country and in their perilous quest for freedom. This unvarnished presentation of facts and personal accounts offers more than just insight into a tragic situation – it provides a sobering reflection on the human cost of totalitarianism.

OUR RATING

8 / 10

Our world is a tapestry of incredible beauty and profound horror, and one of its most harrowing threads is North Korea.