‘Beyond Utopia’ Review: A Stunning Look At The North Korean Nightmare And Some Brave Souls Trying To Escape It

North Korea is a place of fearful fascination. It is the most brutal regime in the world, led by a dynastic dictator, Kim Jong-un, who has proven to be even more ruthless and obsessed with nuclear weapons than his father, Kim Jong-il. We all have a certain vision of North Korea, a country sealed off like a prison, cut off from the rest of the world by technology (or the lack thereof). You could say that it exists as a kind of phantom state, a locked totalitarian hell. But when you watch Madeleine Gavin’s amazing documentary “Beyond Utopia,” which is about what really goes on in North Korea and a bunch of desperate souls trying to defect, you see North Korea, the complete nightmare of the place. . like never before.

The filmmaker obtained prohibited images that were smuggled out of the country, and in those images we see citizens lining up to see a public execution; then we see the execution. We see North Koreans who have gotten into trouble with the regime—which one man did simply by tearing off a piece of Kim Jong-un newspaper so he could roll a cigarette—in interrogation rooms, being savagely beaten and tortured. We hear what happens to those who receive the worst sentences. They are “banished”, being deposited in the desert, or imprisoned in one of the gulags, also known as a concentration camp. That last sentence is, of course, loaded, and “Beyond Utopia” makes the reference explicit by stating that North Korea is a cult state of terror so relentless that the only country it’s comparable to is Germany. Nazi.

Like a profile of North Korea’s grim dystopia (a state newspaper, a state TV channel, walk-up apartments where tenants burn wood, latrines with holes in the floors, human waste collected by the government to fertilize farms, buoyed citizens spy on other citizens), “Beyond Utopia” has a daily terror. It looms behind the façade of the town of Potemkin which, for far too long, is all we’ve ever seen of North Korea. But the film also chronicles, with cellphone footage, the attempt of five family members to abandon this bad dream of a nation, and their story of escape has terrifying suspense that will take your breath away.

The central figure of the documentary is Pastor Seungeun Kim, a kind and smiling South Korean Christian who defected from North Korea years ago. In the past 10 years, he has helped 1,000 people escape, risking his own safety. He emerges as a benevolent figure of bravery and a master tactician as he orchestrates the escape plan that guides the Roh family.

The DMZ that separates North and South Korea is littered with two million landmines. Today, if you want to escape, your only option is to cross the Yula River into China and then through Vietnam and Laos. They are all communist countries that if you get caught they will send you back to North Korea. The promised land is Thailand, on the other side of Laos. Thailand is not communist; if you get there, you are free. But to do so, the defectors must embark on a treacherous journey, traveling on foot through jungles and mountains, with the help of middlemen who do it for the money and have no interest in whether the desperate people who pay them make it. your destiny

Usually, when refugees flee an oppressive regime, they know what they are leaving behind; they can taste the freedom they are seeking. But part of the story that “Beyond Utopia” tells is that the citizens of North Korea don’t fully understand how oppressed they are. They can not; they have never seen another way of being. In that sense, aside from Nazi Germany, the country that most closely resembles North Korea is Mao’s China during the madness of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of people died in China of starvation, due to Mao’s disastrously unhinged economic policies. Later, partly to cover all this up, China became the first National Propaganda Media State, subjecting its vast population to daily brainwashing, with Mao portrayed as a living deity.

The North Korean regime, in many ways a depraved consequence of Maoism, goes even further. As the film shows us, he has taken his made-up theology from the Bible, with Kim Jong-un portrayed as a Christ figure, and we see footage of the huge, massive stadium displays that citizens, including thousands of schoolchildren, rehearse for a year. at once: exhibits resembling the opening ceremony of the Olympics staged on a mile-wide electronic billboard where each LED light is a choreographed human being. This whole loony-tunes extravaganza is meant to celebrate the “utopia” of North Korea, with the outside world, especially the United States, portrayed as such a demonic place that the only word used to refer to someone in the US is. USA is “American-bastard”. .”

The joyless suppression of life in North Korea makes at least some citizens suspicious that a better life must lie on the other side. The “Beyond Utopia” dropout family is like that; they are ordinary people who have set themselves on a soulful mission. We also follow the saga of Soyeon Lee, who defected from North Korea and now tries to get her 17-year-old son to do the same. The members of the Roh family (mother, father, two young daughters, 80-year-old grandmother) are guided by Pastor Kim, who organizes a meeting with them in China; they make the journey step by step dangerous. Lee’s son is not so lucky. He is arrested by the authorities, tortured and sent to a gulag. We see a photograph of a sad, handsome high school student, and it’s surreal horror to imagine what has happened to him. At times, the torment of his mother is almost unbearable.

North Korea wasn’t always as horrible as it is now. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia helped subsidize the country, and for years it was economically stronger than China, which is held up in some quarters as a shining example of how communism could “work.” But the country was destroyed by the Soviet fall. The famine that occurred killed 3 million citizens, and Kim Jong-il began the strategy of using nuclear weapons as a threat and diversionary tactic, a way to make the West forget about the country’s human rights violations. It worked. Guns, now with mobster-autocrat Kim Jong-un in charge, command all the attention. Of course, the West is right to treat any nuclear threat with sober caution. But what we have forgotten about, for far too long, is the people of North Korea. For years, your misery has existed under a blackout. “Beyond Utopia” looks behind the wall and turns on a light.

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