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‘Beyond Utopia’ Is A Stunning Depiction Of A Grueling Journey And Fight For Freedom – Sundance 2023 Review

by Rendy Jones

A documentary film’s subject matter of citizens embarking on the treacherous journey of escaping their home country comes with the prerequisite of bearing a heavy heart. Beyond Utopia’s opening disclaimer states that North Korea is “the most dangerous country in the world.” Real-time vérité footage plays to emphasize that these are no recreations; this is the only fair warning you get before witnessing the devastating shock this Sundance U.S Documentary Audience Award film beholds.

Filmmaker Madeleine Gavin boldly follows the efforts of defector Pastor Seungeun Kim, who, after escaping North Korea’s clutches, dedicated his life to making an underground railroad system for North Korean defectors wishing for a better life. Taking place right before the pandemic, this document centers on two separate groups. The first group is the Roh family, which consists of a man, a woman, an elderly grandmother, and two young children, making the thrilling escape from North Korea to Thailand to find their freedom through Pastor Kim’s assistance. The second is Soyeon Lee, a lucky defector who escaped the country but was forced to leave her young son behind. Over a decade of not seeing her child, Lee hopes to reunite with her now teenage son. These are two examples of the thousands of people Pastor Kim has helped to freedom over a decade.

Beyond Utopia
(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Most of us have been told stories of totalitarianism within North Korea’s government. Through our American lens, many of us would associate North Korea with the definition of totalitarianism,  focusing on the dictator Kim Jong-un’s criminal actions––only to make jokes at his expense––rather than illustrating the city’s living conditions in the country itself. Beyond Utopia creates a clear and devastating portrait of the strict rulings and inhumane conditions citizens are under in their country and the deadly consequences one faces when one tries to leave. Within the film’s first few minutes, Pastor Kim explains the geography of North Korea’s borders and the difficulty one faces trying to get out. Sitting between China and South Korea, chips and cameras galore are placed everywhere, with only a few blindspots to avoid defectors from plenty of kill zones. He elaborates that to find rehabilitation and freedom, one must get through China, Vietnam, and Laos by car, foot, and various fake IDs. That information has also highlighted The Girl with Seven Names author and defector Hyeonseo Lee, who comes in and details the devastating oppression citizens face. 

In her accounts, Hyeonseo Lee chronicles the bleak realities and poverty she witnessed in the country and the jaw-dropping system of brainwashing she survived during her upbringing. The moment kids are ripe for grade school, the brainwashing system begins. With a regime restricting religious freedoms, kids are fed lies about Kim Jon-un being a God, plagiarizing biblical tales and plastering his face over familiar scenes. It’s shocking and, in a way, surreality hilarious. Not even Seth Rogen can capture that bleak hilarity. The longer you learn these details, those kids face, including being forced to learn expert-level dances so they can participate in a nationalist ceremony. The most devastating fact Hyeonseo Lee illustrates is her account of seeing her first public execution at seven years old and thinking it was normal. And that’s just scratching the surface of the myriad of startling facts that sounds straight out of a bleak apocalypse story. It is startling how successful the brainwashing is; it is so effective women genuinely think Kim Jon-un is attractive––even Pastor Kim’s wife married him because of his likeness to Kim Jong-un.

What starts as an equivalent to imprisonment slowly unravels to become descriptions of the Hell most of us fear. Each post-apocalyptic type detail defectors reveal about North Korea enhances the level of stress you feel towards the subjects ––particularly the Roh family––in their once-in-a-lifetime efforts to flee the country. Pastor Kim and Hyeonseo Lee detail the consequences that often result in either death or trafficking. The percentage of success, especially with a family in tow, is not that high.  Most of the successes are usually either up to fate itself or brokers of multiple countries operating in a corrupted police system, all of whom Pastor Kim pays off for help. 

With all that in tow, it’s unimaginable to perceive this doc as anything but a thriller. The fact that this is a reality many viewers can’t even fathom believe, this both becomes the most harrowing piece of filmmaking I’ve witnessed in the medium in a long time, along with the most hopeful. Pastor Kim’s lifelong dedication can best be described as real-life Ethan Hunt and Harriet Tubman. Guiding his people struggling in a brutal society to freedom while doing the most impossible task anyone can imagine. Crazy comparison, yes, and even writing those words doesn’t feel comparable to describing the amazingness of Pastor Kim’s justice.  Watching this one individual’s selfless humanitarianism amid the cruellest portrait of a country I’ve only read about but not ultimately seen in this visual spectrum made this critic break down in tears. Multiple times, I broke down, sobbed, and got a high dose of existentialism. 

Gavin juxtaposes the riveting sagas of the Rohs and Soyeon Lee against one another. While the dialling back and forth is far too overwhelming at times, imagery and audio that illustrate the situations’ stakes are far too powerful to even critique. 

Beyond Utopia is an essential, urgent viewing that everyone must see, especially when discussing North Korea’s regime. It’s a groundbreaking and devastating tale of human resilience, existing in an inhumane government, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. As gruelling and shocking as the subject matter is, the shattering images Gavin documents need to be seen by the masses.

Beyond Utopia premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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