Review by Camden Ferrell
Life inside of North Korea is a cruel yet enigmatic experience that most could not begin to comprehend. Their atrocities and indoctrination are things of horrifying infamy, but due to their isolated nature, there is still a troubling mystery around the lives of their citizens. Director Madeleine Gavin aims to pull back the curtain on these people as she documents several of their journeys as they attempt to defect from North Korea. This is an undeniably harrowing documentary that is one-of-a-kind and full of dramatic tension as well as profound and upsetting emotion.
Seungeun Kim may appear to most as a mild-mannered Pastor, but he also spends his time aiding defectors in North Korea on their quest for freedom. This includes people like the Roh family who must travel through multiple countries to safety as well as Soyeon Lee, a defector in South Korea who is trying to get her son out of North Korea safely. These stories are told and balanced with insightful commentary and revolutionary secret never-before-seen footage from inside of North Korea. These are fascinating stories that highlight the struggles faced by North Korean citizens while also providing captivating insight from people who have spent their lives in isolation from the rest of the world.
From a filmmaking standpoint, nobody can deny how well the narrative of this movie is crafted. It feels like something pulled out of a thriller movie. The anxiety and fear are present in the viewer as they watch the perilous quest out of North Korea, and Gavin excels in grounding the film, so audiences truly understand that these are real people who are under the all too real threat of death and torture for trying to seek freedom. The inherent empathy of this story’s realism is paramount to making this film work, and Gavin deeply understands this.
The subjects of this film are able to maintain the audience’s attention in a gripping way from start to finish. Their own unique experiences are interesting to hear, and one must commend the subjects’ bravery in allowing themselves to be candid and vulnerable about their experiences in North Korea. Pastor Kim is a sympathetic and lovable person in this movie, and it’s easy to empathize with his mission and goals. It’s impossible to truly understand what they have been through, but their testimony is as close as one could ever hope to get to understanding.
Even in a movie filled with the nail-biting suspense of escaping from North Korea, the most harrowing aspect of this film was witnessing the effects of indoctrination on multiple generations of defectors. Growing up in a country completely cut off from the rest of the world and having a leader who is defied in every home can have a substantial impact on the way one views the world, their society, and themselves. This documentary gets first-hand accounts of these effects on young children and the elderly alike. It’s a brilliantly sad experience that is profound and heartbreaking and must be seen to be appreciated.
There has never been a documentary like Beyond Utopia before. The footage captured within the borders of North Korea is fascinating, and the stories told through this film are powerful and essential viewing. Madeleine Gavin has constructed one of the best documentaries of 2023 and perhaps one of the most important ones ever made. This is a film that deserves to be seen even if it breaks your heart.
Beyond Utopia is in theaters October 23.