Beyond Utopia is an astonishing film that in suggests the unique power of our digital revolution. Through the use of hidden cameras, the internet, and human determination it offers us our first glimpses into the "utopia" that is today's totalitarian North Korea.
Beyond Utopia chronicles what it takes to escape in a you-are-there manner, filmed by people who have actually made the dangerous journey. To fail and be taken into custody is certain death. But even more chilling is knowing that the millions inside have no idea that a world exists outside their borders. To disobey is to be treated barbarously for the least infractions. Kim Jong Un's repressive government is relentless about monitoring its people and keeping the outside world out. The deification of the supreme leader, the regimentation and militarization of the social order, and the CCTV cameras everywhere have produced a technological cocoon that stops the free flow of information. Most under the regime have no idea of the rest of the world or the concept of "freedom."
So how does one combat this? Director/Editor Madeleine Gavin uses those very media advances against them.
The story of how Ms. Gavin -- best known for the 2016 film City of Joy -- came to this project is fascinating in itself. She happened upon the TedTalks of Hyeonseo Lee, who recently defected to the U.S., and figured her for a film subject on her own. But digging deeper, she found the courageous Pastor Seungeun Kim, a "broker" who not only aids refugees but arms those inside with cameras they can conceal, and whose wife tells about being raised in North Korea, and taught to call people from the United States "American-bastards." Pastor Kim is helping Soyeon Lee to bring over the son she left behind. Soyeon Lee's grief is palpable: she told the boy she would be gone for two days, then was imprisoned, managed to get away, and has not seen him since. The film tracks her son's journey, as well as that of the Roh family in their trek over the hostile mountains of China, by night to go undetected, with small children an ailing 80 year-old grandmother in tow.
In this way, Ms. Gavin adroitly creates intimacy by concentrating on four individual stories. She expertly combines filmed interviews, video supplied and posted clandestinely by escapees, official propaganda sanctioned by the North Korean government, animations, and covert footage of the streets of China and North Korea to create an essential mosaic of events that are happening now, in our world. There are no recreations. Beyond Utopia has been called a "geopolitical thriller," and even the rendering of the maps, showing uncrossable rivers, treacherous mountains, and government checkpoints, adds to the tension. The borders are nearly impenetrable.
Beyond Utopia is coarse, raw, emotional, suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It puts the lie to Kim Jung Un's North Korea and gives us a look at the true nature of the situation.
That such a manufactured society can exist -- and in this day and age be kept from the world and be so hard to escape -- is the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But it's here, folks, and may be the harbinger of things to come. In this crazy world, we can be sure that for all the viewers who will regard this scenario with horror, there are those with a thirst for power who will think that what Kim Jung Un's going on isn't half bad. We'd do well to learn its lessons, rather than consider it an isolated case a world away.
Beyond Utopia. Directed and edited by Madeleine Gavin. 2023. Produced by Ideal Partners. 115 minutes.