Sundance Film Festival Review: “Beyond Utopia” — Escape (for Some) from North Korea 

By David D’Arcy

Beyond Utopia is a grim reminder that, against growing odds, people keep leaving North Korea, or try to. It may be a while before another family agrees to film the journey out.

A scene from Beyond Utopia.

Plenty of documentaries expose the horrors of North Korea. One directed by the satirist Mads Brügger followed a Danish theater group of adopted Korean children spoofing their hosts, who didn’t get the jokes. One at Sundance years ago found the last American Korean war deserter living in Pyongyang in luxury while most in the country starved. Books and films about escape from North Korea, filled with gruesome testimony, are a genre in themselves

Yet North Korea is not a place that’s easy to normalize, certainly not after seeing Beyond Utopia by Madeleine Gavin, a chilling and unsettling film at Sundance that tracked the escape of five members of a single family — three generations — as they fled through China to Southeast Asia.

For escapees from North Korea, the illegal but once-routine passage through China via bribes and forged documents has become dangerous. COVID has closed the border and enforcement is often too strict for informal payoffs. Capturing North Korean escapees in China is now incentivized, with bounties paid for delivering a prisoner that can go as high as a third of a worker’s salary. That ‘bounty hunt’ bonus adds yet another level of dread to a harrowing journey. Veterans of the escape routes out of North Korea say that anyone caught attempting to flee might be executed.

Details about the film were kept from the public until the doc’s premiere – unusual, given the Sundance hype which begins weeks before opening night.

And this doc is different. Beyond Utopia views the normally secret exodus from the land of Kim Jong Un close-up. The family in flight is filmed by the brokers who have been paid, probably with the family’s last resources, to lead them out. And cash probably came from relatives and other sources in the South. A shooting script was out of the question, as was the presence of light itself. The parents, with two young daughters and a grandmother, do not want to be discovered. The family’s name, Ro, is never mentioned. The dim look of the film, sometimes lit by flashlights and cell phones, is as improvised as the escape itself. And, if we assume the brokers are motivated by money, can money break a deal? At what point might the brokers have more to gain by turning the refugees in?

So, you might wonder, why take the chance? We learn that the fleeing father was “banned” for another offense, so he’s shunned and unemployable. Given how grueling everyday life is in that country, his outcast status makes existence far worse. The family claims to be gathering mushrooms — on a holiday when even the police take time off — and they gamble on crossing mountains near the Chinese border. Eventually they trudge through jungles south of China on the way to Thailand. China, Vietnam, and Laos lean toward North Korea. The Cold War is alive and well.

This version of an ‘underground railroad’ is overseen from Seoul by Pastor Kim, a Protestant minister dedicated to helping defectors. Kim is well enough known to governments along the escape route that he won’t dare to enter China. Steadfastly honest, he relies on a world of corruption where escapees bribe a series of brokers to pass through multiple countries. Kim, seen by escapees as a savior, is a reality check in Beyond Utopia. Few escapes these days are successful, he warns people desperate to leave. They don’t want to believe him, and they often get caught. They are in prison now, if they are still alive.

The fearful family fleeing through China is at the core of Gavin’s documentary. Initially, much of its focus is on the family’s dangerous journey. Eventually, the film cuts away to interviews with other defectors. In North Korea’s economy of stifling scarcity, where resources go to the military while the rest of the country becomes increasingly impoverished, water for drinking or washing is scarce. Families have no choice but to haul it home every day, a Sisyphean chore for everyone. Food is always in short supply. Another crucial commodity these days: human waste for fertilizing soil. It is so crucial that people carry it around in sacks and steal it from each other when they have the chance. No surprise that a country that enforces such a crippling scarcity has no tourist industry. Yet it does have nuclear weapons.

Gavin’s storytelling is linear, like a line of flight drawn on a map. But we’re not sure where the end of the line is, or whether the family will end up safe. What we do see is the paralyzing fear on their faces, a liability when one’s life depends on moving quickly and quietly. Refugees whom Gavin interviews tell of time spent in North Korean prisons. Let’s just say that they are places where the weight just drops off while photographs of the portly Kim Jong Un line the walls.

Alongside the family saga is the plight of another escapee, a young man whose mother tracks his journey with people whom she’s bribed. Eventually, she learns that he’s been arrested, beyond the point where any more bribes can help. She and others whom Gavin talked to speak with a leaden stoicism that comes from lifetimes under a merciless dictatorship. Be prepared to watch people confronting utter hopelessness, especially when they speak of family members left behind in the North.

As unbelievable and seemingly unique life in North Korea might be, there are scenes in Beyond Utopia that remind you of hardship on other journeys. The family treks over steep hills and through water in thick vegetation, each one carrying belongings in a bag or two. The terrain reminded me of the Darien in eastern Panama, through which refugees from Venezuela and neighboring countries now trek toward the US border. As with escapees from North Korea, they are prey to brokers who demand more money when things get difficult.

Beyond Utopia is a grim reminder that, against growing odds, people keep leaving North Korea, or try to. It may be a while before another family agrees to film the journey out.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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