Beyond Utopia
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Beyond Utopia 2023 Movie Review

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Beyond Utopia 2023 Movie Review

    “This film is about people attempting to escape from one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.” That line of text fades up on the screen in the opening minutes of Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia,” an absolutely harrowing documentary that captures the terrifying process of what it’s like to try to cross the border and make a break from Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian North Korean regime. Without relying on live-action recreations, the movie is instead comprised of footage captured by three groups: the filmmakers, operatives who participate in a secret underground network, and the subjects themselves. “Beyond Utopia” provides a grounded, human element to the atrocities happening in North Korea, and the results are intense, thrilling, heartbreaking, and vital.

    Talking head interviews with people like defector and author Hyeonseo Lee paint a bleak picture of life inside the North Korean borders and provide first-hand accounting of the lies and propaganda that are force-fed to the country’s suffering citizens, as well as the abject brutality that is shockingly commonplace. While Kim Jon-un insists his people live in a utopia, we see footage of schools being let out for the day so children can watch public executions, and security footage of people who are savagely beaten in interrogation facilities for the smallest infraction. The government randomly sends soldiers into people’s homes with white gloves so they can check the amount of dust on each family’s required framed photos of the nation’s “Fearless Leader”; if any dust is found, the punishment could be severe. Survivors recount scenarios in which they were tortured, sometimes for months; one man’s weight plummeted from 168 pounds to a mere 77 over the course of his mistreatment, and he was forced to bury hordes of his dead countrymen. It’s clear through his recounting of the grisly details that the experience will forever haunt him.

    The main thrust of the movie is divided between two stories. One follows defector Soyeon Lee, who left her family behind so she could escape and has spent the last decade trying to smuggle her now 17-year-old son out so he can join her. Her arc, which features phone calls to sources over the border, wiring money to mysterious brokers who may or may not be yanking her chain, and urgent attempts to learn about her boy’s whereabouts, is a portrait of isolation, anxiety, and despair you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. The other tracks Pastor Kim, a Christian leader living in South Korea who has personally orchestrated the rescue of approximately 1,000 people since he himself defected ten years prior. He spends the film trying to help a desperate family of five (including an 80-year-old grandmother) make it to safety — because landmines prevent them from simply crossing directly into South Korea, they instead must all secretly travel across China, Laos, and Vietnam in order to reach Thailand, the nearest non-Communist nation that wouldn’t immediately return them to North Korea, where they would almost certainly be executed for treason if caught.

    Gavin, who also serves as editor, weaves these stories together masterfully, and also provides a bit of a history lesson about how we got here, including a recap of the Korean War that Americans who went through the public school system will likely find refreshingly direct and clarifying. What she’s accomplished with this documentary is a huge accomplishment, and the footage she shows audiences, both from inside North Korea and of the family’s agonizing travels through dark jungles, is nothing short of extraordinary. A powerful and important look behind the curtain, “Beyond Utopia” is one hell of a cinematic nail-biter and a stark reminder of the human rights violations being committed every day in 2023.

    Beyond Utopia 2023 Movie Review